Today I am marking off my sixteenth #16 checkpoint category for the POPSUGAR READING CHALLENGE 2020 with:
An era-defining novel about the relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her teacher
ALL HE DID WAS FALL IN LOVE WITH ME AND THE WORLD TURNED HIM INTO A MONSTER
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.