My last catch-up post from June is for Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, which was one of my top reads for the month and for the entire first half of the year.
In the novel, adult Vanessa near present day is dealing with the fallout from a relationship that started when she was fifteen. In dual timelines, Vanessa recounts how she became involved with a much-older teacher at her private school in her teens, while in the present she watches another girl accuse the same teacher of rape and gain traction against his reputation on the internet. More girls come forward. Vanessa must now reconcile what she’d always considered a difficult romance with the stories that are costing her teacher so very much.
” ‘He was a grown man and you were fifteen,’ she says. ‘What could you possibly have done to torture him?’ For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.”
This is a difficult review to write, both for the painful content it covers and for the simple fact that I thought the book was pretty much perfect. Is there anything more to say, beyond ‘I wouldn’t change a single line?’ My Dark Vanessa is both beautiful and heartbreakingly ugly. It bravely tackles both physical and psychological trauma, and while vilifying predatory behavior it also challenges the reader to accept a response to this treatment that doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of victimhood: Vanessa does not see herself as a victim. She doesn’t want to condemn her teacher. She continues to reach out to him as an adult, even while he is under attack, even while she knows that he has touched other underage girls. She turns down chance after chance to speak out to anyone in a way that could prevent other girls being abused by this teacher, by this school, by other teachers in other schools. And this, too, is a valid reaction to trauma.
“Ordinary girls have shoeboxes of love letters and dried-out corsages; I get a stack of child porn. If I were smart, I’d burn everything, especially the photos, because I know how they’d look to a normal person, like something confiscated from a sex trafficking ring, evidence of an obvious crime- but I could never. It would be like setting myself on fire.”
As for the writing, the eighteen+ years Russell spent working on this story show. The language isn’t ornate or flashy, the sentences straightforward, but every word has clearly been chosen carefully, and absolutely nothing is out of place. It’s extremely quotable. Every detail is aptly delivered, and the tightrope line between the subtlety of literary fiction and the clarity of commercial fiction is walked effortlessly. There’s a natural, flowing pace to the words, and even the switches from past to present are transitioned gently with linked themes and emotions from one chapter to the next. This is a story to get lost in, if you can bear to be broken by it all at once.
There are also, for the bookish reader, several references to well-known poems and literary works within these pages. The obvious connection, of course, being Lolita, which is mentioned frequently. I think anyone familiar with Nabokov’s most infamous work will see an extra layer of richness to the story as similarities can then be drawn and allusions understood. It’s one thing to know vaguely what sort of book Lolita is when Vanessa’s teacher gives her a copy and it becomes her favorite novel, another to be familiar enough with that work to see how disturbing but disturbingly fitting that is for Vanessa’s experience. But, that said, the ties are explained well enough on page that it really isn’t necessary to read Lolita for the sake of this novel, and it’s not a book to go into any more lightly than My Dark Vanessa. Be aware of plot spoilers for Lolita here though, if you do plan to read it later on. (Minor spoiler in the quote below.)
” ‘Like Lolita and Humbert,’ I say without thinking, and then wince as I wait for his annoyance at the comparison, but he only smiles. ‘I suppose that’s fair.’ He looks over at me, slides his hand up my thigh. ‘You like the idea of that, don’t you? Maybe one day I’ll just keep driving rather than bring you home. I’ll steal you away.’ “
One thing I’ve seen some divided opinion on with My Dark Vanessa is the ending. Despite some resolution, there is no happy ending here. It is, perhaps, hopeful, at best. Vanessa sees some character growth, but much like real life, deep hurt is not easily cured and people will always have differences of opinion and experience. Personally, I thought the ending for Vanessa here was inevitable, and the way we leave off with the other characters felt realistic. That is arguably the best way to end a book so rooted in ongoing social issues. Sexual assault resulting from abuse of authority is not something that we should have any reason to consider resolved or concluded at this point.
In the end, this has perhaps been the most haunting and emotional book I’ve read all year, and I have some truly great titles to choose from on that score. I am lucky enough not to have been raped at fifteen or any age (own voices reviews for trauma content should be sought with care, it is no one’s obligation to announce their traumas for others’ benefit), and yet something about sexual abuse stories always manages to cut right into my heart as though it’s personal. This line, I think, really helped to explain my reaction:
“I had no reason to care about rape then- I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved- but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grown up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”
CW for molestation, rape, grooming, gaslighting, and destructive behavior, all on page.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I am 100% on board for whatever Kate Elizabeth Russell publishes next, no matter what topic, no matter how much time she spends on it, etc. She’s a brilliant writer and My Dark Vanessa will have pride of place on my shelf for a long, long time.
And as a final note, I haven’t read this book yet but have recently heard about a nonfiction memoir that sounds like it would be a great companion to My Dark Vanessa: Lucy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing, in which she describes speaking out about sexual assault as a teen and learning later how her school, local police, and others worked to bury her case. I’ll definitely be checking this one out, and if you loved My Dark Vanessa I thought you might also appreciate having this one added to your radar.
The Literary Elephant