2020 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge · 2020 Reviews · contemporary fiction

POPSUGAR READING CHALLENGE 2020: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

pop sugar 2020 3May

Today I am marking off my sixteenth #16 checkpoint category for the POPSUGAR READING CHALLENGE 2020 with:

a book featuring one of the seven deadly sins

An era-defining novel about the relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and hermy dark vanessa small teacher


Vanessa Wye was fifteen-years-old when she first had sex with her English teacher.

She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.

Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that.

Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.

Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age.


‘I still feel different to the others, dark and deeply bad, same as I did at fifteen, but I’ve tried to gain a better understanding of the reasons.’

With early support from none other than Stephen King, it is no wonder that My Dark Vanessa has been a much talked about novel. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut is a piercing, plunging and sullen composition. It looks at a form of love and lust that is deeply unsettling. My Dark Vanessa is a haunting novel that will linger with you, long after the final page has been read.

In My Dark Vanessa we meet Vanessa Wye, an intelligent fifteen year old girl, who has a bright future ahead of her. When her English teacher takes a shine to her, Vanessa falls deep for the thirty plus educator at her boarding school. Now, many years later, Vanessa navigates life as an adult. It is clear that Vanessa is traumatised by her relationship with Jacob Strane, her English teacher, but she fails to accept it as abuse. The allegations stack up against Jacob Strane, as another victim comes forward. Vanessa is torn between her loyalty to Jacob and speaking out against him. All Vanessa knows is that her love for Jacob was real. As Vanessa tries to make sense of the fresh allegations against a man she has loved with all her heart, she recollects her past. Vanessa is confronted with confusion over her experience. Is she a victim or just a former love?

There is no greater time than now to release a book centered around victim rights and abuse of power. My Dark Vanessa is a timely and relevant set piece that explores a fictional case that could very easily be mistaken for a real life situation. We are currently experiencing the #metoo movement and it has provided fertile ground for stories such as My Dark Vanessa to flourish. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel is a book that screams 2020. It entrenched in the here and now, despite being set in 2000 and 2017.

I tend to race through my books in a fairly short turnaround of two days or less. My reading experience of My Dark Vanessa seemed to span across a number of days, which is unusual for me. I found that I was unable to read this book in big chunks. I had to take extended breaks and mull over the difficult territory this book navigated. I do issue a trigger warning for this book in relation to the abuse and overall relationship between this teacher and student. At times it was hard to swallow and I had to turn away from the book in some sequences. After regrouping I was able to return, but I seemed to have a sick gut feeling in my stomach as I read this novel.

Despite the controversial and strained subject matter, My Dark Vanessa is very well written. It is hard to believe that Kate Elizabeth Russell is a debut novelist. She is measured and confident in her attempts to relay this difficult story. The first person narrative approach works incredibly well. We get inside Vanessa’s state of mind and her confused feelings. The author inhabits her lead very well. Kate Elizabeth Russell also explores the relationship dynamics between Vanessa’s teacher, her friends, her parents and other staff at her school. When we meet Vanessa in the 2017 sequences she hasn’t changed a great deal. We observe Vanessa’s inner torment as she grapples with the allegations made by other victims and the expectations placed on her to testify against her former teacher.

Kate Elizabeth Russell carefully draws on many complex themes in My Dark Vanessa. Some issues incite a clear cut and dry style response, while others will have you walking on eggshells. Such is the delicate nature of many of the issues raised in this debut novel. Kate Elizabeth Russell explores abuse, power, authority, deception, protection, parenting, ambition, friendship, betrayal, consent, sexuality, rape, choice, suppression, education, love, lust, longing, obsession, shame, oppression, the law, social media, reporting and human rights. There are other themes I would also like to add to this lengthy collection, but I fear I may venture into spoiler territory if I added them to this list. What you do need to know going into this novel is that you will emerge rather changed by this book. Vanessa is not the easiest character to understand and Jacob is equally  perplexing, as well as distasteful.

There are some interesting links and ties made to Lolita and My Dark Vanessa that gives extra texture to the novel. The literature references worked well within the novel, feeding the reader with further details to ponder on within the context of this relationship. Kate Elizabeth Russell presents her audience with a powerful reflection of a fraught relationship. The damage this morally wrong relationship has inflicted on Vanessa as a teen and then into her adult years is handled with poise by this talented debut author.

Persuasive, potent and challenging, My Dark Vanessa is a disconcerting novel that will weigh heavily on your mind.

**** 4 stars

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was published on March 9th 2020 by 4th Estate – GB. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell, visit here.


11 thoughts on “POPSUGAR READING CHALLENGE 2020: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

  1. Three cheers for marking off another Popsugar category, you really are on a roll. I’ll be posting more reviews for this challenge soon too. I’ll be glad once I’m done reading my coffee table books so I can concentrate on the Popsugar challenge.
    Love the title of this book so I’m adding it to my TBR list.

    Question time again, sorry, hope you don’t mind? Anna Campbell has written more than 20 books but half of them are longish novellas would they still count for the ‘a book by an author who has written more than 20 books,’category? Or are they talking about full length novels?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I’m officially caught up now, as long as I keep to the four reviews this month I’ll be fine! I bet once that coffee table has been cleared you will feel elated! Time to sacrifice some sleep for more reading lol! I’m also pleased you are adding this one!

      I see I am too late giving you a reply to this one. I think you are fine to use this book/author for the category, completely justified!


      1. Yes, that’s the hard bit though isn’t it to keep to the four reviews a month especially with so many other challenges going. Oh yes, and once that last book is read I think I’ll want to throw a party. Lol! Not sacrifice sleep more like TV I watch too much of it. Steven and I watched the Michael Robotham series you recommended a couple of weeks back, we watched it all in one go, loved it. Wouldn’t have known about it if it wasn’t for you, so thank you so much. have you watched The Stranger?

        Hahaha, yeah just a tad lol. After having another look at the books Anna wrote I think I was safe using that category as the ones I thought were novellas were still longer than a novella so I thought they counted as a book 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Exactly right, a think I over committed to me challenges. May I should reduce next year! I have one down, 3 to go fro this month for Pop Sugar. I think a party celebration is needed if I ever manage to complete the pop sugar one, lol! I had a look at the dymocks one and was tempted but it came out after I committed to pop sugar. Maybe next year! I’m glad you enjoyed the Michael Robotham series, I’ve been recommending to everyone! I loved the Stranger, we devoured that one when it first came out. Have you tried Safe? That’s all a Harlan Coben adaptation.

        I think you were more than safe will you choice, good one!


  2. We have to keep telling ourselves we can do it, it’s a huge feat but I know we can complete the challenge. As I’m saying this my face is screwed up and thinking at the same time ‘hmm, nope.’ LOL. And from The Little Engine That Could – I think I can, I think I can, I think I can That’s us puffing away as we read as fast as we can to get those challenges done, bahahaha! I have 8 to catch up with for this month, I think I’m going to cry. I have no choice but to use one book for 2 or 3 categories.

    And, I had a look at the library challenge but I also couldn’t commit although I could have used the same books but there were some categories that were very different and I just couldn’t fit those extra books in.

    We loved The Stranger too. Now I want to read the book. No, haven’t watched Safe yet but it’s on the list. I have about 6 series on Netflix to get through. One is a drag (Brooklyn nine-nine) but now that I have started I want to finish it and I do love the actor Andre Braugher. Have you watched this series?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, lol, I had a laugh at this comparison but I also think you are completely right. The last school holidays with iso lockdown made it much easier to get ahead with some of my challenges (but I saw no dents in my shelves) but now I am back at school and working more days this term I think I will fall behind sadly. I can only try though! Wow that’s a lot of books to catch up on, I think your only option would be to double up and play clever by overlapping books when you can.

      No more challenges lol! But I’m glad to hear you still had a look at the library challenge.

      I’m so glad you loved the Stranger, it was brilliant. We just read Harlan Coben’s new book for book club. I will be writing up a review and using it for a challenge category as it was a non review book. That’s great Safe is on your radar. I think Jason has watched the series you are talking about, I often half tune in while I am reading a reviewing at night. It always great when you find an actor you just love and connect to! I devoured Unorthodox on Netflix over the last two nights. I even put down my book for it!


      1. I’m hoping to cut back on the challenges next year. I need a year of less reading challenges stress! Oh, but they are fun though aren’t they? Especially Popsugar, choosing a book for each category is so enjoyable. Ah, I’ll see!

        I haven’t read a Harlan Coben in years I must rectify that as I truly love his books. Glad you can match it up to one of the challenges. If Jason did watch Brooklyn nine-nine I wonder what he thought of it? I don’t mind it but I do prefer the meaty crime series not the silly comedy crime which is Brooklyn nine-nine. I haven’t heard of Unorthodox but it must be super good for you to put your book down, lol, I’ll check it out when I’m having my lunch which will be shortly. I’ll get back to you on what I think about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Exactly Sue, I might be with you, but I’m not sure which ones at this stage as there a some I’m automatically committed to (I host book bingo and work for AWWC). I do find they are a good way to make me read my other books, not just review books all the time. But we don;t need all the stress that goes with them! I think I will give Pop Sugar a miss next year, it has been tricky balancing that one!

        think Jason enjoyed it. It is his type of humour but he seems to dabble in a lot of TV! I rarely watch TV, it just happens to be on in background while I am reviewing or reading. That’s how I came to watch Unorthdox, Jason popped it on and I gave up reading for it!


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