MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)
I’ve read My Dark Vanessa way back in May, and back then, I’d given this book only four stars because of some issues I had with the plotting. But as I was writing this review, I realized that I was barely even looking at my old notes while writing it—which hardly ever happens—meaning the story really stayed with me. So I’m bumping up my rating to 4.5 stars.
My Dark Vanessa is about the ‘relationship’ of Vanessa, the protagonist, and Strane, a teacher thrice her age. The narrative alternates between the past and the present, with the past exploring the 15-year-old Vanessa’s perspective during the height and drawn-out aftermath of their relationship, and the present depicting a 32-year-old Vanessa as she is forced to confront the nature of her relationship with Strane, especially after one of his other victims comes forward and reaches out to her for solidarity and support.
Based on its synopsis alone, it’s clear that My Dark Vanessa goes into detail into some heavy and uncomfortable material—for example, there are graphic depictions of grooming and rape in the novel—but what makes reading these even more uncomfortable is how Vanessa romanticises their relationship, and how she continues to defend him from his accusers. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clearer that defending Strane was Vanessa’s way of defending herself, and that the heart of the novel is Vanessa’s struggle to reframe their relationship from one of a ‘love story’ to one marked by manipulation and abuse.
I was completely riveted by how Russell depicted this fraught process, as the narrative structure reflects just how difficult and exhausting it is to confront a history of trauma. From the way that Vanessa recounts moments of their relationship, it’s evident to the readers that she realizes, on a preconscious level, that Strane was taking advantage of her. But while she can approach this insight, she can never quite articulate it. It seemed to me that letting go of a story that she was used to telling herself is painful and marked by grief, no matter how damaging that story was.
“I just feel . . .” I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”
“I know,” [her therapist] says.
“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?”
I look to her glassy eyes, her face of wide-open empathy.
“It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life.”
I’ve focused mostly on the fraught and messy process of coming to terms with trauma, but My Dark Vanessa also touches on a number of issues in very thought-provoking ways. One of them is dynamics of consent and power. In the early days of their relationship, Strane always asked Vanessa for consent every time he wanted to take their relationship to the next level, which made it seem like he was doing the ‘right’ thing:
“Listen,” he says, “I have no expectations. I’d be happy to sit on the couch with you and watch a movie. We don’t even have to hold hands if you don’t want to, ok? It’s important that you never feel coerced. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself.” [. . .] “You’re in charge here, Vanessa. You decide what we do.”
But, upon reflection on this, Vanessa thinks:
I wonder if he really believes that. He touched me first, said he wanted to kiss me, told me he loved me. Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.
This also made me wonder about the context in which the ‘consent’ was given—namely, that Strane was a teacher, and Vanessa was a minor. Even if Vanessa had ‘consented’ to their relationship, Strane was already abusing his power by initiating their relationship in the first place.
Finally, on a larger scale, My Dark Vanessa is also searing commentary on the lengths that institutions and society take to protect (white) men like Strane in positions of power, and how such predatory behavior can be enabled by literature. Lolita, for example, was a powerful influence on how Vanessa came to see her relationship with Strane.
My only quibble with this book is that the plot dragged in the middle, and the events in the second half felt like a recapitulation of the much stronger first half. One could argue that Vanessa’s falling into old patterns of behavior is part of her journey through trauma, but I still thought that the second half could have been cut out or at least shortened without the novel losing its impact.
But that’s a minor complaint. Overall, My Dark Vanessa is a nuanced, thought-provoking, and compulsively readable look at the difficult process of healing from sexual trauma and at the dynamics of consent and power. If you can tolerate the content, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in nuanced psychological portraits and morally ambiguous characters. This is an extremely accomplished debut, well worth the two decades it took Russell to write, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next (though hopefully we won’t have to wait as long!).
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from May 1-3, 2020