Wow. Never have I ever read a novel that has made me feel as uncomfortable and drained as this one did. I could not wait to finish reading My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, but not for the reasons you might think when you hear anyone say those words.
Russell’s first novel is dark, draining, depressing and uncomfortable and I am only writing this post soon after completing it as I want it out of my system and in my past, something the protagonist, Vanessa Wye, doesn’t seem to be able to do.
Switching between the early 2000s and 2017, the #metoo movement, Vanessa details her 2 years of boarding at Bronswick School at only 15 years old, where she grows close to her English teacher, Jacob Strane. Just knowing what the rough storyline was made me cringe, but nothing prepared me for the ease it took for Strane to take advantage of the school girl. In fact, I think I was quite an emotional mess in my life when reading this – that’s how much of an impact it had! It felt like I was in a dark place, trapped, just like Vanessa.
Like any child who wouldn’t know any differently, she feels appreciated and likes that her teacher is paying attention to her in class for her talent. She soon grows fond of his company, attending after school clubs and staying with him at break time, all because it starts out with a stroke of the knee, maintaining eye contact for just a second too long, and reading books of poetry with underlying motifs of sex.
A dark, twisted fate lies ahead for Vanessa as their ‘relationship’ quickly develops and she ends up at his house… It’s sickening. Repulsive. I don’t know if it is good writing that Russell managed to evoke discomfort during my reading, revealing how it may be for someone going through the same experience. I was astounded as to just how graphic the sex scenes were, thinking she would brush over them.
Quickly, Strane becomes a vulgar man who seems to defend his actions and inform Vanessa that what they are doing is fine because of their feelings for each other, only that they need to keep it a secret.
Fast forwards to 2017, you can see that this experience has truly messed her up and blurred her understanding of meaningful relationships, where her future has fizzled out and she still remains in her child-like mindset. It seems Vanessa was old for her years at fifteen; perhaps a reason for Strane being attracted to her, but her mental growth stifles as she does not appear to have grown up nor want to acknowledge the real truth; that she was abused. Who knows if Strane goes off older women…
Her loyalty still lies with Strane, where she sadly admits to her vulnerability of men and relationships, which she likes. The thought of someone jumping on her and raping her – she likes. She never sees herself as a victim, only occasionally questioning if she was raped. ‘It isn’t rape unless you want it’ as she recalls. A difficult argument for when you don’t say yes or no, which other victims in the world face yet know it IS rape.
Admissions like these throughout the novel make me wonder if it is a story based on experiences Russell may have had, or was it just down to a lot of research?
Vanessa disturbingly likes the power older men have over her, letting them take advantage, including Strane who she refuses to let go of as they both grow old, even as the #metoo movement picks up and a journalist and apparent Strane victim tries to contact her to open up about her ‘ordeal’ with the teacher.
I’m sure you can guess her reaction. The novel was a compelling, disturbing read which truly raises awareness of how actual victims of sexual abuse can think. I don’t think I would feel comfortable giving it anymore than 3 stars as it is a twisted story with a horrific abuser, yet the story was eye-opening, raw and very real. I truly felt drained, empty, yet free when I finished reading. That’s when you know you’ve been coerced, just like Vanessa…
Rating – 3/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Genre – psychological fiction