'My Dark Vanessa' is a gut-wrenching debut

“Because you took advantage of my disadvantage.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

The #MeToo movement has empowered people to speak out against their abusers, headlines have screamed out the downfalls of powerful figures as they are held accountable for their actions. Of course, not every abuser is brought to justice and not every person who has suffered abuse has been able to talk about it or even been believed. Our latest read transports readers to a boarding school in Maine, where a student is abused. Readers be warned, this book is upsetting and might be triggering for those who have experienced sexual assault and or psychological abuse.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel is a tour de force about a woman coming to terms with the abuse that defined and shaped her life. Vanessa was 15 years old when she fell in love with her teacher; lots of kids can have a crush on their teacher, but in Vanessa’s case her teacher was in love with her as well. “My Dark Vanessa” is an astounding #MeToo era novel that introduces readers to Vanessa and her story as an adult who is watching the love of her life, Strane, face allegations of sexual assault from his former students. When one of his accusers reaches out to Vanessa, asking if she’ll join their cause, the story shifts and reveals how she was a lonely child, groomed by her teacher and manipulated into believing that their relationship was a beautiful and ill-fated love story. Now in her 30s, Vanessa is still in contact with Strane and finds herself conflicted over the investigation. She doesn’t see herself as a victim, she doesn’t see her time with Strane as abuse. She views it as a love story, where their differing ages led to a sad conclusion instead of a happily-ever-after.

Russell’s novel doesn’t just crackle, her tale is an inferno that sears with traumatic scars and reveals how the mind is willing to rewrite history in order to protect itself. As Vanessa’s story unfolds, partially through flashbacks and partially through conversations with her therapist, she’s forced to confront not only the truth about what happened to her, but also how to come to terms with it. Russell doesn’t shy away from the disturbing nature of the relationship, instead she leaves readers squirming as Vanessa thinks back on her encounters with Strane. “My Dark Vanessa” is a pivotal and explosive exploration of sexual abuse and the psychological dynamics at play when a person is faced with deciding whether or not to come forward with his/her story. The gut wrenching effects of Vanessa’s trauma radiate through the novel.

From the book jacket…

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?

If you enjoy…

Readers who found themselves captivated by Russell’s novel might also enjoy any of Vladimir Nabokov’s work, as throughout “My Dark Vanessa,” the author refers to his books “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” For those who found the confessional element of the story to be compelling, consider reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng.