To be human is to tell stories and sometimes these stories are ugly and difficult to stomach. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa is exactly one of these stories; it is raw, dark and necessary to read. Humans are a complex universe of beauty and ugliness, truth and lies and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s book holds a mirror to our world in order to explore important and difficult topics: sexual trauma, consent, rape and manipulation.
My Dark Vanessa is focused on the life of Vanessa, the protagonist of the book. The narrative switches between Vanessa as a grown-up in the present day and Vanessa as a teenager in the past. This alternation of the narrative is vital for the presentation and understanding of the behemoths of topics that the book is trying to discuss: sexual power, rape, trauma and the idea of being a victim. The reader follows young Vanessa through her high school years where she meets the charismatic, English teacher Jacob Strane. Their relationship is the main focus of the novel and it shows that not everything is black and white even when we discuss topics that on the surface may sound pretty clear-cut. Throughout the book the reader gradually sees the subtle manipulation that Jacob uses in order to keep a firm grasp on Vanessa who, although spectacularly bright, is lonely and in need of attention and praise, which Jacob supplies generously. The past story clashes with the present showing a bright Vanessa working as a hotel receptionist drinking and smoking her life away, obviously scarred by her teenage experiences. In the present narrative Jacob has been accused of sexual harassment by a number of ex-pupils who encouraged by the #MeToo movement have found their voice and are ready to speak about their clashes with him. Vanessa, who is still in touch with him, is slowly torn in half between believing that her relationship with Jacob was a real love story and the idea that he might have manipulated her to such an extent that their experience bordered on paedophilia and rape.
My Dark Vanessa has already been titled as the 21st century Lolita by some critics and throughout the novel, Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece is indeed discussed by Vanessa and Jacob multiple times.
The way Russell has integrated Nabokov in her novel is very poetic and representative of the change that Vanessa undergoes from the past narrative to the present one. Her initial view of Lolita as a great love story shifts throughout the years and it mirrors her own inner change of heart regarding her teenage relationship with Jacob. This shift also occurs in the reader. The book is not a straight forward account of Jacob being a sexual predator and Vanessa being the victim. There is a profound complexity in the discussion of the main themes and even though the reader knows that Jacob is a manipulator and deserves what he gets in the end, Vanessa is at times exasperating and in full understanding of the power her body possesses, which can seem just as manipulative thus painting yet another layer that challenges the reader once again. The present day narrative portrays just as many complexities as the past one. Vanessa’s clashes with the other victims of Jacob and her reluctance to take their side, her refusal to be labelled as a victim are just a few examples that defy our expectations and the way we think about sexual assault, crossing borders and being a victim.
Kate Elizabeth Russell has done an outstanding jobs with her debut novel. Only a very gifted writer can take such a complex and sensitive topic and turn it into a brilliant discussion that challenges the reader’s understanding and perception. My Dark Vanessa is definitely difficult to read at times but good literature should not be just a form of entertainment. It should challenge us and it should bother us in our deepest core and My Dark Vanessa indeed does that so this reviewer agrees with the other critics out there: Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut will definitely become a contemporary classic.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is out in January 2020, published by 4th Estate.