Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Another hard book on subject matter for me this month. My Dark Vanessa covers the relationship between Vanessa Wye and her English teacher Jacob Strane when she is away at boarding school, when she is fifteen and he is (gag) forty-two. This is obviously (to the reader) a textbook case of a teacher sexually and emotionally abusing his much-younger student, but what is so creepingly and profoundly disturbing about this book is just how terrifyingly good Strane is at grooming Vanessa - pulling her in, convincing her that everything that happens is her choice. The first-person narrative, as we move backwards and forwards in time (starting with Vanessa when she's thirty-two, stuck in a dead-end job she doesn't enjoy, propping herself up with drink and drugs) and flipping backwards to her first interactions with Strane and the fall-out of the discovery of their affair, means that as readers we are trapped in the labyrinth that is Vanessa's mind and we go along with her through all the twists and turns of the relationship and its fall-out. We watch the way Strane grooms her, gaslights her, eventually rapes her and convinces her it isn't rape; and though we are infuriated at the sexual predator he is, we also see the gloss Vanessa is convinced to put on it, that he's just had the misfortune to fall in love with a teenager who is almost thirty years younger than him and her conviction that he's her first love, her great love, her one true tragic love.
It's heartbreaking and disturbing and chilling and infuriating and so, so, so hard to read.
Vanessa describes the multiple rapes in excruciating, painful detail. She takes the fall for Strane when their relationship is discovered, and the way he talks her around to believing that the best thing for them both is to allow herself to be expelled, to claim she made up the whole thing, is because it will save his reputation, spare him jail, and spare her the blowback of this following her for her whole life - it's such a terrifyingly neat way for an abuser to turn a situation on its head that it made my blood run cold, especially because Vanessa was so irreparably damaged by the abuse that we see its fall-out haunting her for the rest of her life anyway. Strane is so manipulative, so repulsive, so horrific that you want to scream at her for her willful blindness in not seeing what he is and what he's done to her, but at the same time, it completely makes sense and I completely understand why she would be so desperate for her first, formative experience of love and sex to not be abusive, to not be made a victim by her very first foray into this world of intimacy (on a side note - her therapist is a brilliantly well-written character. I want that therapist).
This book is a hard book to read, but it is a phenomenally well-written one.
The details of all the characters are pitch-perfect. The exploration of the nuance and the complexities inherent in any relationship (whether abusive or not) are well-developed, and treated with the compassion and the razor-sharpness that they merit; and put forward in a way that immerses you in the psyche of the protagonist and puts the horror of what you're looking at unflinchingly in your face. You cannot look away from what is happening, even as you desperately wish you could (and, as a political point about the subject of the novel itself, I suppose that is what we're meant to take away). The psychological impact and fall-out of this relationship, the internal twisting and contorting Vanessa has to do, her heartbroken admission at the end of the novel that she needed this to be a love story because she didn't want to be a victim - all of it made me hurt to read but was so deftly handled and well-written. It was also incredibly gripping - I raced through it because I couldn't pull myself away from Vanessa and her story and her hurt, and I just wanted to reach through the pages and give her a hug, but since I couldn't do that the least I could do was sit with her until the end.
I don't want to call this an 'important' book, because I hate that characterization (not the least because literature is incredibly close-minded to authors and stories that are not white and male, and who the fuck gets to decide what's an 'important' book anyway, but this is neither here nor there). It's a difficult book to read, but the story it's trying (and succeeding with flying colors, in my view) to tell is an incredibly important one, and raises the questions and the importance of recognizing that there is nothing, not even abuse, that is straightforward and easy to understand or even condemn from the outside. Trying to boil down any part of this book to a straightforward or obvious conclusion is impossible, and if we don't try and see situations like this with all of their nuance and their complexities we'll never understand any part of it.
Globally, an excellent book with an incredibly difficult subject matter - and that is the reason I am not recommending it. It was hard to read and now I'm off to read something very light and fluffy, like the Darnley assassination.