Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

I received a copy of the ARC of My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell at a Harper Presents event. The blurb sounded interesting and relevant.

Genre: Adult Fiction, Contemporary


Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself. 

My thoughts:

The novel shows the slow steps that Strane, the teacher, takes to groom Vanessa to accept his advances, to welcome them, and even to seek him out. The reader is often reminded that Vanessa is fifteen at the time of the seduction; and that she is isolated with no friends. It seems obvious, to me at least, that Vanessa was targeted by the teacher because of this – and yet as the novel progresses Vanessa expresses the belief that she was not a victim; that instead the relationship with her much older teacher was her choice.

As I was reading the novel, I noticed the two opposing views even within Vanessa herself. It is interesting to note that not only was her body seduced but also her mind and emotions. On one level she states that the relationship was her choice – and yet small memories suggest that maybe it wasn’t. Russell adroitly juxtaposes the two, encouraging the reader to reflect on Vanessa’s experience and make a judgement.

Russell expertly describes the give and take of the relationship between Vanessa and Strane – when Vanessa was at school and also once she is an adult and working. Her writing causes the reader to feel an array of emotions both negative and positive. The novel is filled with the see-saw of emotions experienced by Vanessa – a range of emotions which filter through to the reader.

My Dark Vanessa is not an easy read and I had to set it aside for a while because of the way the story was making me feel. It was upsetting to me to read a story of how an experienced teacher takes advantage of a young girl that should have been in his care. Instead of reaching her full potential, she loses the opportunity to be her best as well as loses her innocence. In addition, I know that Vanessa’s experience is the experience of so many young girls who receive the unwanted attentions of men who have no right to foster their desires onto naive and innocent girls.

Despite the novel being a difficult read, it is one that is extremely well-written. The author takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotions from the start to the end of the book. The story is a relevant one for today and suggests that one think carefully before ascribing the label of victim to all the women who have been seduced when young by older men. I finished reading My Dark Vanessa having thought about the issues suggested – but still believing that the responsibility of keeping a distance does fall with the person that is older and more mature.

I give this novel ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 4 stars

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2020

(This novel was the 10th novel in my book pledge for 2020)

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