Book Review | My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Vanessa is fifteen years old, attending a seemingly idyllic and prestigious boarding school set in the rolling mountains of Norumbega, Maine in the early 2000s. Jacob Strane is her English teacher, in his forties. And the two, Vanessa insists, embark on a romantic relationship.

This enthralling, dark, devastating and nuanced novel is difficult to write about. Let’s remember one thing: Vanessa is fifteen. And although Strane calls her ‘mature’ for her age, we are constantly reminded of just how untrue this is – she is, first and foremost, a child. She’s petty, and insecure, and naive, and trusting, and lost, and lonely. All of which make the way that Strane grooms her even more abhorrent. In all the headiness and confusion and complexity of teenagerhood, Vanessa tells herself it’s love. That being with Strane makes her powerful, and womanly. That she has the power to destroy everything for him – but it’s a power she will wield and never exercise.

‘But no, that word isn’t right, never has been. It’s a cop-out, a lie in the way it’s wrong to call me a victim and nothing more. He was never so simple; neither was I.’

Vanessa is a troubled and troubling narrator. She insists on having control over the narrative, constantly resists the language of rape and abuse, and yet in a way is already allowing her story to be governed by another narrative – that of Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel Strane gives her when she’s fifteen and which she quickly becomes obsessed with, to the extent of muddling up, in adulthood, what happened in the story with what happened between her and Strane.

‘If I tug on any string hard enough, Lolita will emerge from the unravelling.’

Vanessa’s refusal to see herself as a victim, her insistence on her own complicity and willingness is undermined by her own retelling of the story – graphic scenes of abuse that she reimagines as romance. It is painfully obvious to the reader than Strane is a monstrous predator, and yet, as hers is the only narrative perspective we have, I felt at times wondering if we were wrong to deny Vanessa her fiction.

‘I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.’

But the damage that this event has inflicted upon her life as she moves into adulthood is undeniable. We see how the harm reverberates with the dual narratives of Vanessa in 2006 and again in 2017, at the start of the #MeToo movement and an increased pressure and galvanised momentum to speak out against abusers.

There’s a difficulty in a lack of a clear resolution, and the book feels somewhat over long. We spend a considerable amount of time with a very complex and difficult narrator, which is an emotionally draining experience. But it’s also a masterpiece. Complex, deeply uncomfortable, but utterly captivating.



Have you read My Dark Vanessa or is it on your TBR? Do you think it was worth the hype? Would love to hear your thoughts!