Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

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?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

As I read the final lines of “My Dark Vanessa”, my breathing finally slowed down; my anxious thoughts have ceased to exist but the questions have begun to surface.  What did I just read?

This book is one of this year’s most anticipated and highly recommended literary fiction, with an average rating of 4 stars on Goodreads and to miss out on this novel is like refusing an opportunity to grow as a reader. 

But this book is not for everyone. “My Dark Vanessa” is a dark and heavy literary piece to read.  It took me days to finish this book and had shelved it several times to mull over details that were too explicit and painful that it made me sick.  It is definitely the kind of book I should hide from my teenage daughter and pray she never gets her hands on.  This novel would eat you alive and could linger in your head for quite some time.

Told from Vanessa Wye’s point of view, the story shifts from one timeline to the next as Vanessa recounts her story of how she met her English teacher, Jacob Strane, whom she begins a relationship with built on manipulation and exploitation. 

The novel could easily find its way into the hands of every sexually abused or sexually assaulted victim or a #MeToo movement advocate, as what the author had intended the novel be addressed to. But Vanessa Wye’s narrative is clearly not just about raising awareness to the horrors sexually abused women have been subjected to, but an examination of its aftermath and the extent of its damage.

The book is overwhelming, at times even revolting. The sexual details were too graphic and it didn’t help that I struggle to empathize with Vanessa’s plight. My emotions run high all throughout the novel from pity to repulsion to hate then back to pity. I felt like I needed to shake her into consciousness and demand that she address the complexity and consequences of her choices. It was nerve-wracking how I wanted to scream the words, “You are a victim!” And then it hit me. Do I even know what really goes on in her head? Do I even have the right to propel her from her dark past to fight back? Is Vanessa even a victim here or is she right to consider herself not abused? Is this really how some of the abused women feel? 

These are questions I know not the answers to. While it is easy to support sexually abused victims out to fight for justice despite the public trial they will be plunged into, what then must be our behavior towards those who chose to remain quiet? Do we hate on them for keeping their stories hidden from the prying eyes of the righteous because they are too afraid to be judged?  How can we alter the way the victims think and feel of themselves?  

I have so many feelings about this novel. I hate and love it at the same time. But this novel is an eye-opener. A poignant characterization of what child-grooming is. It begs us to understand the manipulative actions of pedophiles luring underage girls to fall into their trap. Men who have the audacity to rid their hands of blood and guilt.  Predators tricking girls into having a normal relationship only to be abused later on.  For a reader who is not even aware of what “child grooming” is, it is then uncomplicated to sympathize with Strane’s character and believe that he is free from blame.  If some of us have also fallen into the trap of feeling for Strane then consider ourselves naive.

Russell’s message is clear.  “My Dark Vanessa” purports to be a retelling of a fifteen-year-old girl who refuses to be called a “victim” by stressing on consent and not abuse; of having power over her decisions. But for how long will Vanessa think of herself this way? The answer lies not in the book as Russell purposefully gives us an open-ended tale that leaves us struggling to understand. “My Dark Vanessa” is neither to moralize nor to counsel but it does have the power to alter the way people think.  This powerful narrative becomes a part of us.  However perverse and haunting, readers must look beyond the painful aspects of the book and come to terms with how devastating yet powerful it is. It may not be our story to tell but it is someone else’s and that someone might just want to be heard.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Literary Fiction

Length: 373 pages

Publisher: Published March 10th 2020 by William Morrow

ISBN-10: 006294150X 

11 thoughts on “Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  1. An excellent review. I had the same experience as you did. I found it difficult sympathizing with Vanessa but I guess that is Russell’s intention. It is indeed a timely and relevant read.


  2. Ah, great review! I love that this book is challenging readers’ opinions on what victimhood “should” look like and how people deal with trauma in different ways. It’s certainly an impactful book that’s both interesting on the surface and leaves you thinking long afterward.


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