Source: Review copy
Publication: 31 March 2020 and out now in e-book from 4th Estate
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.
It’s quite difficult for me to talk about this book, because it deals with subject matter that I find very difficult. Not because of any personal trauma, but because of stuff I have had to deal with in my professional life which has led to any kind of sexual abuse being a big trigger for me.
My Dark Vanessa is graphic, that’s one of the first things to say about it. It is also an incredibly strong portrait of what happens to a 15 year old girl when she is steadily groomed and abused by a teacher, a man in a position of power over her; a man in in loco parentis.
Vanessa is a bright young woman who wins a scholarship to a boarding school. She finds the new environment a bit daunting and is slow to make any friends. Jacob Strane is 42 years old and an English teacher.
He singles Vanessa out for special attention, flatters her writing and commends her poetry. Sickeningly, he lends her Nabokov’s Lolita which will become their ’special’ book. Vanessa is wooed and beguiled and believes herself to be in love even as this predator is physically abusing her.
My Dark Vanessa is an exploration of what happened to that 15 year old girl, told through her own voice and spans the period when she was at boarding school together with a shift to the present day, when we meet the 32 year old Vanessa who is a complete mess. She drinks, smokes dope and sleeps with wildly unsuitable men. Any thoughts of an academic or postgrad career vanished long ago and now she works as a hotel receptionist in a dead end job.
Somehow, Vanessa has managed to hold onto that childhood belief that she was in love; that she was special, that anyone else who said they had been abused by Strane had no idea what they were talking about.
Because Strane, accused of abuse when Vanessa was his pupil and who got Vanessa to take the blame, has once again been accused. 17 years later, he stands accused by another former student of abuse and Vanessa is still making excuses for him. Vanessa is a mess though. She has conversations with herself and others where she plays out variations of the truth to try them out for size. She kept a blog, naming no names, where she tried to write out what has happened to her. But she can’t admit to herself what somewhere deep down she knows to be true, that her life has been a lie. She has to believe in a love affair, even though a part of recognises that’s not what really happened.
The strength of this book is in the writing and in the way that Vanessa is portrayed. Time and time again as she thinks about her relationship with Strane, she strains at recognising the awfulness of this situation, only to be unable to face it and to retreat into the ‘love affair’ version.
Sadly, Strane is not the only predator she meets and unlikeable and chaotic as she is, her most awful moments come when she is asked to stand witness for other women in condemning Strane. It is then that we see her sense of alienation and self-delusion hanging by a thread.
A couple of years ago, Sofka Zinovieff wrote about child abuse in Putney – a nuanced, delicate book that was incredibly thought provoking. My Dark Vanessa is much more of a blunt instrument and as such is quicker to rouse a deep visceral reaction and I experienced real rage as I read it.
Verdict: My Dark Vanessa is brutal, nauseating, anger- making and important. It shines a light on the subtleties of coercive control in abuse cases like this where the age gap is so substantial and young girls are so used to sexual imagery around them in ads, and songs. I could not say I enjoyed it, but I found it powerful and challenging and most importantly, truthful.
Kate Elizabeth Russell is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, is from William Morrow (US), 4th Estate (UK), has been translated into over twenty languages. Originally from eastern Maine, she earned an MFA from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas.