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My Dark Vanessa

Review

My Dark Vanessa

In pop culture, beyond an actual reading of Nabokov’s novel, LOLITA is understood to be a dangerous romantic myth: that of a sensitive and intellectual grown man in love with a nubile teenage temptress. But the real story of the book is the lies that Humbert Humbert tells himself (and thus the reader) about the manipulation, rape and abduction of a girl named Dolores Haze. This manipulation of facts is not uncommon in abusive relationships and acts of violence against children, and this mythologizing is a form of manipulation used by abusers and predators.

A related form of mythologizing may be employed by victims as a survival technique. In MY DARK VANESSA, debut novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell boldly and frankly dissects the ongoing abuse of a teenage girl by her teacher --- the way he controls the narrative to suit his needs and how she bends the painful truth to protect herself for over 10 years.

"MY DARK VANESSA addresses a horrific topic with an emotional honesty, an intellectual complexity and beautifully rendered prose."

When Vanessa Wye begins her second year at Browick, a boarding school near her small hometown in Maine, she is bereft of her former best friend and roommate, lonely and emotionally vulnerable. A budding poet, the 15-year-old is intrigued by her 42-year-old English teacher, who is also passionate about words and meaning. Jacob Strane takes an interest in Vanessa, and very soon his interest becomes what readers will recognize as dangerous grooming behavior and what Vanessa, naive and susceptible, finds compelling. The after-class conversations and compliments turn to Strane’s hands on Vanessa’s knee, and after that the relationship turns sexual and heart-rending.

Vanessa’s response moves between shock and desperation, fear and confusion, and even longing as Strane’s attentions become increasingly controlling and harmful. To the high school sophomore, theirs is a secret and misunderstood affair. Again, though, readers will see just how Strane has conditioned her to think this way. When another student brings the relationship to the attention of the school administration, Vanessa is further traumatized by staff and classmates and is sent home from Browick, still friendless, and having protected Strane from consequences.

As the years go by, Strane continues to exert emotional and physical power over Vanessa. In 2017, as the #MeToo movement gathers force, his other victims begin to come forward with accusations, forcing Vanessa to confront her past and present connections to him. Strane’s death leaves her stunned and even more isolated as she tries to understand the harm he has done her. His last act is to mail her a box of evidence, leaving Vanessa responsible for both his crimes and transgressions and her own feelings of guilt and shame.

MY DARK VANESSA addresses a horrific topic with an emotional honesty, an intellectual complexity and beautifully rendered prose. It is an exploration of the trauma and response behind an important movement that seeks to give voice to victims, but it is also the carefully crafted story of one woman and what she told herself to survive devastating infliction of pain. Russell does not shy away from graphic details, but her focus is really on Vanessa’s mental state and the hope of eventual peace of mind.

This story of trauma, complicity, sorrow and survival is in conversation with --- or, perhaps more precisely, in debate with --- the twisted perspective of LOLITA, and it destroys the notion that what Strane or Humbert Humbert offered was ever love. MY DARK VANESSA surely will be described as timely, but truthfully this is the kind of story that should have been told long ago, and should keep being told until the culture that allows and even romanticizes such abuse changes radically and learns to protect and value girls and women.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 13, 2020

My Dark Vanessa
by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  • Publication Date: March 10, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 006294150X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062941503