Title: My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Yay, four months into the year and I have one of my favorite books of the year! This book was a definitely a wild ride and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I finished it. Russell has crafted a difficult story about an abusive relationship that provides no easy answers and that’s why I absolutely loved it.
As soon as I started reading, I was hit with an isolating and oppressive story that did no let me go. We switch back and forth between two timelines, one in Vanessa’s high school and college years when she at fifteen enters a sexual relationship with her English teacher, Strane (42). The other timeline is in the present in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult and she finds out someone has come forward with a sexual assault allegation against Strane. A journalist seeks Vanessa out to corrobate the other victim’s story but Vanessa refuses. It’s interesting to see what Russell has to say about victimhood in this novel. The story is clever because you read about Vanessa’s ordinary life and in turn, she normalizes the abusive experience. It is only in occassional moments that she seems to glean that something is not right with the relationship. Strane is not a straight perpetrator either. Strane slyly manipulates her all in the name of love, constantly referring to her as powerful, having power over him yet Vanessa accepts it. The reader sees that she is being manipulated but you also see why Vanessa doesn’t understand that she is in an unfair power dynamic, even citing that she was the one making him fall to his knees. So she has all the power. Right? She even believes she wants Strane. I think it portrays the complexity of abuse very well, going into parts that are often not written about. Even though Vanessa has moments of knowing this relationship is wrong, she makes leaps to justify it. I also aprpeciated the mention of dissociative disorder which I don’t read a lot about but is very common in victims of abuse.
It’s interesting that Vanessa never considers herself a victim, stating it’s just a mental state. Being in her head truly allowed me to understand her logic. I read an interview with this author after I read it, the comments about how her early readers thought Vanessa was too unlikeable and that Strane should have had a POV to elicit more sympathy for Vanessa. I’m really glad Russell chose not to write it that way because in that way, we get to explore different types of victims with different types of stories. It still pains me that we only accept a victim, especially a woman, if she is passive and likeable. I like that we’re exploring a story where the it is the victim’s story and this victim doesn’t fit into a box we know well.
Russell also revealed she wanted this book to open conversation on consent. also shows us the complexities of consent. Strane clearly asks her for consent during sexual encounters and asks if she is comfortable. Of course, a yes means yes right? Of course, it’s more complex than that. Even after they are apart and Vanessa leaves for college, Vanessa’s every waking moment is consumed by this man. The story in the past spans from high school to college and when she becomes legal, it becomes like every other type of relationship. It’s really fascinating to be lured by Vanessa’s POV seeing how how Strane manipulates her ideas of responsibility, power, sex, and relationships and you see that ripple into her adulthood. Too fittingly, there are many references to Lolita in here, a kind of meta comparison to what is happening between the two characters but of course with widely different interpretations. Truly, you feel as though you were stuck in her head. I like seeing how she grows and changes (or lack thereof).
A lot of the reviews of this book have complained that the secondary characters didn’t have any depth. I disagree. I think enough of their personalities were gleaned to make a foil for Vanessa, but her entire world revolves around Strane and her perceptions of the other characters would predictably be limited so I had no problems with that. It also gives a sense of claustrophobia and isolation to Vanessa’s story. The tone of the story was sensually bleak and oppressive. I also found it fascinating how big cultural events like the Bush presidential election were mentioned because it added a sense of false normalcy and place to this book.
I thought her storyline in the present was equally as fascinating as well. Vanessa doesn’t believe she has been abused, raped, or coerced. She denies anything remotely bad has happened to her but it’s interesting to see how she copes with it. She frequently dissociates and has to drink and smoke to cope with her life. I think this book really stands out from other books of this nature because of Vanessa’s ignorance and denial of her abuse to the journalist. In the era of the #metoo movement, it’s very hard to accept that refusal to acknowledge what has been done to her but it only brings into question difficult facets of victimhood and justice. Is it your reponsbility to come forward with your story to corrobate other victims and to inspire others to take action? What happens to justice if you don’t? Even at the end of the book, you don’t find the satisfying answers and solutions that you feel Vanesssa deserves but the uncertain ending makes her experiences all the more harrowing.