Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Published in The Observer March 29, 2020

When #MeToo broke, it wasn’t just about high-profile cases of abuse – it felt like a new light being shone on all past interactions, allowing us to see them differently. Everywhere you saw women talking feverishly to each other, you knew it would be about this creepy boss, or that older guy.

My Dark Vanessa – about a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Vanessa, who has a sexual relationship her 42-year-old teacher, Jacob Strane – animates this process of re-evaluation, albeit within an extreme case. Kate Elizabeth Russell resists the (now sometimes shrill) insistence on black and white in sexual dealings – instead inhabiting the mind of a vulnerable teenager, offering insight into how black might feel like white, how abuse might be taken for romance – and how this lie could be desperately clung to into adulthood. My Dark Vanessa reveals a slow journey towards a different understanding.

It’s been billed as “the most controversial book of the year”, yet it strikes me as a level-headed portrait of how complicated such experiences may feel. Russell acknowledges that teenage girls can have sexual desire and a certain kind of power – and that the psychological manipulation of these can itself be one of the most powerful weapons of the abuser.

The novel has its own penumbra of hype: a seven-figure advance, an accusation of plagiarism that got it dropped from Oprah Winfrey’s book club – and, grimly, resulted in Russell reluctantly revealing it was partly based on her own experiences. There’s a bitter irony in Russell writing a book about a woman who doesn’t want to come forward about abuse, and being forced to expose her trauma herself.

As a work of fiction, My Dark Vanessa is absolutely gripping – especially in the first half where Vanessa is a lonely Maine schoolgirl with a burgeoning crush on her English teacher. Written in the first person without hindsight, it’s a brilliant depiction of how grooming feels from the inside. You see exactly why she was attracted to this older man: he feeds the girl’s teenage sense of being painfully different by constantly telling her she’s “special”, they are both rare “dark romantics”, and that by driving him wild, it is she that has power over him.

Russell allows an erotic charge to crackle in her telling, even as wild warning bells go off on nearly every page. There are many moments that also send a spiral of nausea through the stomach, moments Vanessa can’t quite comprehend but that leap horribly off the page to an adult reader: when Strane buys her cutesy pyjamas, groans “I’m going to ruin you” in her lap, or asks her to call him “Daddy”.

These chapters are interspersed with the 32-year-old Vanessa – disappointed by life, downbeat and numbing with weed and booze – obsessively following new allegations against Strane by another former pupil. But Vanessa clings to the belief that with her, it wasn’t abuse but a grand romance. The title is a quote from Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, but the book is in dialogue with Lolita – though here, it is the Lolita figure herself who insists it’s a love story.

Even when acknowledging Strane’s grooming, the adult Vanessa is defensive: “why is everyone so scared to admit how good that can feel? To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.” But where she sees her refusal to be a victim as strength, the reader sees only deluded self-preservation.

The novel loses its urgency a little in the second half, as Vanessa flounders through adulthood. Russell presents events in a way that cleverly allows us to see wrongness even as her narrator insists on rightness, rather than delving deep psychologically. But it’s a darkly compelling story, and surely destined to find an audience worthy of that advance.

Where next?