We review the book described as ‘the one everyone will be talking about in 2020’, the very of the moment, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Dark Vanessa – the blurb
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?
Not a victim
The book starts off with Vanessa, adamant she is not part of the #MeToo movement. In fact she seems almost scornful of it: “The accused go through the same steps. First, they deny everything. Then, as it becomes clear the din of the accusations isn’t going away, they resign from their jobs in disgrace and issue a statement of vague apology that stops short of wrongdoing. Then the final step: they go silent and disappear.” No Vanessa is definitely not a victim. She was in a loving relationship when she was a teenager. It just happened to be with her teacher who was quite a bit older than her.
Look a little deeper
The novel then goes back in time to the point where Vanessa first meets Strane. As the relationship develops you start to realise it might not be quite what Vanessa holds it out to be. As a teenager she was clearly a loner, had already demonstrated obsessive behaviour (with her ex best friend) and was struggling in classes “always on the brink of falling behind”. Yet she was also intelligent, so much so that she caught the eye of teacher Jacob Strane who noted all of the above and acted upon it. I’ve never really understood the term ‘grooming’ before, yet Russell illustrates this perfectly with Strane’s courtship of Vanessa.
A little darker
As the story continues the relationship becomes more and more disturbing. I didn’t like the pyjamas or the scene where Vanessa lost her virginity. I really didn’t like the phone call between Vanessa and Strane at her parent’s house. Russell makes it clear, it’s not just an older man who has fallen for a younger woman. There is something darker with Strane. Whilst he does have some self awareness, “I’m going to ruin you.” his sustained behaviour removes any doubt and any sympathy.
A lifelong addiction
It is only when we return to present day we realise how much of an effect Strane has had on Vanessa’s life. How much this bright, pretty, young thing has been diminished. Strane’s vice like grip never let go, even when he had all but done with her. Vanessa’s slow realisation is moving “Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?…It’s my life….This has been my whole life.” Yet the ending is hopeful, just the right amount of sweetness without it become ‘happy ever after’.
Her Dark Vanessa is without doubt a disturbing tale and is right on the money with the #MeToo movement. It takes you to some very dark places. It asks some very strong questions. The book is published in January 2020 and once you have read it I would love to hear your thoughts. What did you make of Vanessa’s mother and how she handled her daughter’s exit from boarding school? And what about Henry Plough, what was his game?