My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Published: 23 January 2020 (4th Estate)
“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”
Vanessa Wye is a teacher’s pet. Or a ‘classroom pet’ as Mr. Noyes remarks when he catches 15 year old Vanessa and 45 year old Jacob Strane together. The comment given with laugh that might as well have been a nudge and a wink. In her first term at a new prep school, away from home, and without anyone to talk to, Vanessa is struggling to keep up. And she’s just lost her best friend to a boy, of all things. But her English teacher really gets her. He gives her books to read. Books that seem to hold special relevance, that resonate with the way she’s feeling, that give her new ways of thinking about herself. Books like Nabokov’s Lolita, an immediate favourite. He makes her feel special. And if sometimes she’s not entirely certain about the things that happen between them, if they maybe go a bit further than she was expecting…well, that’s ok because afterwards she’s almost definitely sure she wanted it to happen. That’s what he tells her anyway. And she believes him, because they’re in love…
Uncomfortable?? Get used to it. This book doesn’t hold anything back. If you think you might struggle to read a step by step guide to grooming and manipulation that includes scenes of sexual abuse, including rape, then don’t pick this up. It’s aggressively disturbing, deliberately and rightly so, told through the eyes of a girl who has so internalised her abuse as a love story that this twisted concept of youthful romance dominates her life. The narrative is told through two timelines, revealing her experiences as teen and adult, but both focus on the way she understands and explains her ‘relationship’ with her teacher. Especially when he is accused of sexual abuse by another ex-student and it seems like she might not have been ‘special’ after all.
The author’s exploration of victimhood vs agency is challenging, apparently inspired by her own sexual experiences with older men as a teenager. The novel questions what it means to be a victim, as well as the exploring the relative power(lessness) of someone who is experiencing or has experienced sexual abuse/trauma. Anyone who has read Lolita will recognise the themes. My Dark Vanessa is both a response to/refashioning of that book and references the text throughout. Here though, we don’t get the voice of the Humbert/Jacob character. This book centres Vanessa’s emotional journey, the reader following her normalisation of a relationship which breaks the cultural, legal, and moral boundaries of contemporary society. Whatever ‘power’ she accords herself, it is clear that this is no equal relationship. Vanessa’s thought processes fall into a pattern of mitigating Strane’s behaviour rather than developing genuine notions of her own agency. As she searches for some kind of understanding, about her situation and the ways it makes her feel, she creates for herself a sense of validation through negative association. The endless litany of ‘i’m/he’s/we’re different’ is a heartbreaking process of justification that doesn’t prevent the reader from seeing that Vanessa is manipulated, groomed so well that her very idea of herself is warped to serve the needs of her abuser. The language he uses, the way he controls through guilt and threat and fear, the asking of consent after acting/doing so that he can always say he asked and received permission, the appeal to her love for him as a means of protecting himself from consequences of his actions… all of it forcing on Vanessa a narrative of herself and her behaviour that’s so convincing she believes it wholeheartedly. Her inability to understand what is happening to her fundamentally affects how she conceives her relationship with him, both as a young girl and later in adulthood. Her manipulated feeling is just one more facet of the abuse, a tool to ensure compliance. Because if this is her choice, then it’s also her fault. Poor Strane is lost to the love he feels for his Lolita. Nobody could possibly understand. What a tragedy.
Yet the complexity here is not about Jacob Strane, it’s about Vanessa’s experience and its validity, regardless of how it came about. Trauma is not easy to deal with, love is hard to let go. This is the heart of it all. If Vanessa believed in the love she felt, does it make it less true to her when others redefine what she experienced?
‘What he did to me wasn’t rape rape’,
Vanessa says when describing what happened. She’s arguing for her own emotional and physical action here, her involvement. But while she might not frame the sexual abuse as such, it seems pretty clear to the reader. As frustrating as it is, especially when continued by the adult Vanessa, the author perfectly demonstrates how and why she thinks the ways she does. It is never anything less than utterly, indisputably real, the straightforward, self-reflective style making it almost relatable. And utterly terrifying.
Still, it feels dangerous to me to allow for shades of agency within the framework of this type of coercion. Is there any difference if in one scene she’s penetrated before she consents or even really knows what’s going on and in another she invites him into her childhoods bedroom? What about the time she says stop or what if she orgasms? Do we need the specifics to decide what is or isn’t rape/abuse? What about the times she enjoyed it? Does it make her less of a victim? How does it change our perceptions of her to know and see these moments?
I’m reminded of another book: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. Not just because abuse underpins both stories, but because each girl has to manage the ever changing boundaries between what they feel and what they know. And the reader has to come to terms with the fact that what we know doesn’t necessarily change how they feel. In fiction, as in real life, the argument that ‘you can’t feel like that because I don’t want you to or don’t think you should’ has no relevance to someone’s lived experience. There’s an expectation to it, a demand that victims act how we want them to or they’re not really victims at all. For me, the culpability in this case is clear, but the hardest thing to take was that Vanessa didn’t necessarily agree.
“It’s my life,” I say. “This has been my whole life.”
I have a feeling that this book is going to be divisive as hell and that means it’ll be BIG. The hype has already started, with Stephen King calling it ‘a package of dynamite’. I can’t argue with that, it’s a conversation starter to say the very least. I leave it with mixed feelings. It’s a well-constructed, timely story with seriously impactful writing that challenges the way you think. But perhaps there’s too much graphic detail? Whether I feel that way simply because I didn’t want to read vivid, explicit scenes of sexual abuse or whether the author made the wrong choice in putting so much into the story, I can’t say. My visceral reaction hasn’t lessened days later. I really didn’t want these mental pictures and I hope they don’t stay too long. This is why, in the end, it only got 4 stars from me. As much as the book is about trauma, victimhood, consent, and agency, all I can remember are scenes of coercion and rape.
Read it if you can, but really be aware of what’s within these pages. You won’t forget it, whether you want to or not.
ARC via Netgalley
You can PRE-ORDER the book from: Book Depository (free shipping)