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.