Even before Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa had been published, it was making headlines. Between a juror for the Weinstein trial almost being dismissed for having read an advance copy, ongoing scrutiny of racial bias in the publishing industry and debate around what role ‘authenticity’ plays when you’re a writer of fiction, the question of whether My Dark Vanessa was the most controversial book of the year was a fair one. However, as thrilled as I was to have some truly thorny discussion material for my book club, I feel to a certain extent that all of the public controversy has overshadowed the fact that the book is really bloody good.
My Dark Vanessa tells the story of Vanessa Wye, a fifteen year old girl who is sexually abused and groomed by her much older English teacher, Jacob Strane. However, Vanessa does not view herself as a victim. She believes that she and Strane shared a romance that society is too small-minded to understand and that theirs is an epic love story for the ages. She also believes that she is the one in control of their romantic and sexual relationship because Strane’s powerful and obsessive desire for her has put his life and career in jeopardy. However, as the years pass and Vanessa grows into an adult, she finds herself stagnant, clinging onto the past, still obsessed with Strane and recreating their relationship dynamic wherever she can. But when allegations of abuse from other students of Strane emerge, Vanessa’s carefully constructed story begins to crumble. What if everything she has ever told herself about this period of her life – that she was special, irresistible, in control and that Strane was powerless in the face of her unique charms – is not reality but delusion?
This novel was compulsively readable and the fact that it accomplished this in spite of the fact that it contained the most stomach-churning sex scenes I’ve ever seen written down is a testament to Russell’s talents as a writer. Often to say something is readable is to imply that it has limited literary value, but this is not the case here. My Dark Vanessa is very much a literary piece of fiction and Russell is consciously in dialogue with Nabokov throughout the novel. Strane gives a copy of Lolita to Vanessa (because of course he does) as well as a copy of Pale Fire, from which the novel’s title is derived. But the dialogue between the two authors is not limited to allusion and interplay. My Dark Vanessa is a direct inversion of the Lolita narrative, but instead of the novel being narrated by the pedophile, desperate to portray his molestation of a child as a love story, we see things through the eyes of the child, desperate to accomplish the same deception but for very different reasons. This clever inversion not only builds a compelling narrative but a psychologically realistic one. While reading Lolita I never truly felt Humbert Humbert believed his own lies, I thought his performance was too self-conscious and that he was more invested in ensuring the reader believed him. But in My Dark Vanessa I am in no doubt that Vanessa truly believes her own delusions and that viewing the predatory relationship between herself and Strane as a love story is utterly central to her sense of self.
The construction of the self as a teenager is another fundamental theme of this novel. It is told in a split perspective, alternating between Vanessa at fifteen and Vanessa at thirty two and the use of this device really allows the reader to see the toll that Strane’s abuse has taken on Vanessa. The young Vanessa is lonely and sensitive, but leads a vivid and intense interior life, while the adult Vanessa seems like a washed out version of her former self, devoid of the passionate feelings and creative ambition that drove her as a young woman. The reader is left in no doubt that this change is the result of Strane’s interference in Vanessa’s development. This novel reminded me vividly of the fact that being a teenager is such a uniquely vulnerable position, a time when one is trying to figure out who they are and desperate for someone, anyone, to tell them who that is. When Vanessa is lonely because she has few friends, Strane tells her that she’s not lonely, she just likes her own company. The reader knows this is a mischaracterisation but Vanessa chooses to believe him, because it’s a much more attractive option to be alone by choice than to be friendless because no one else likes you. This has the effect of further isolating Vanessa from her peers and pushing her further into the grasp of Strane. Similarly, when she shows him her poetry, seeking teacherly feedback, he tells her ‘I think we’re very similar, Nessa…From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.‘ but the reader knows that Vanessa is an ordinary teenage girl who likes reading, playing with her dog and listening to a bit of Fiona Apple, hardly the edgy, sexualised, dark creature that Strane is trying to mould her into. However, because Vanessa trusts him and because she is so uncertain of her own burgeoning identity, she believes him and finds herself becoming this girl who she doesn’t recognise.
Later in the book, when Vanessa is at university, she contemplates the thought of becoming a lecturer with pleasure and she wonders ‘Maybe that’s what this has always been about – not wanting these men but wanting to be them‘. This line hit me hard because it brings to mind the extent one man’s manipulations and selfishness derailed a life. Rather than becoming a mentor or guide, Strane chose to suck away Vanessa’s chances at a good education, healthy relationships and a bright future like a vampire. It is only towards the end of the novel that Vanessa starts to see herself and her situation for what they are; a case of a girl interrupted. In a scene where she is defending Strane to her therapist, she recounts his desire for her and how he was driven wild from the moment she walked into his classroom while the therapist is left to gently remind her that she didn’t ask for any of this, that she was just a child trying to go to school. Vanessa is left dumbstruck and the reader is left chilled at the thought of the myriad young girls just trying to go to school, to work, to sporting practices around the world who have been and will be derailed in the same way Vanessa was. Somewhat depressingly, I felt incredibly lucky that when I was a lonely, sensitive teenager who hadn’t a clue who I was and was desperate for adult approval that all my teachers gave me was extra work rather than a psychosexual complex.