TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual abuse, paedophilia
THE PLOT: ‘My Dark Vanessa’ by Kate Elizabeth Russell is about a fifteen-year-old girl who falls in love with her teacher. Structured as a dual timeline, the book goes back and forth between the early 2000’s – depicting how the relationship between Vanessa and her teacher developed – and 2017, where Vanessa is being pressured to expose the relationship against a backdrop of the ‘Me Too’ movement. As other women come forward and claim they were also abused by this teacher, Vanessa maintains that her relationship with him was different because they were in love. It was love. Wasn’t it?
RATING: Wow. I feel like this book sucker-punched me. It is extremely visceral, packed with the type of atmosphere and emotion that makes you want to scream. Finishing this book, I’m left bereft…? Alone? I feel like I read this book too quickly, too intensely. I shouldn’t have allowed it to get under my skin but, surely, it must get under the skin of all its readers. It is well-structured and well-paced, with brilliant writing and complex – truly the MOST complex – characters. It’s about hebephilia, consent, sexual abuse, manipulation, narcissistic abuse, rape, and overall it’s about how women must present as the perfect victim. It is a stunning, blistering debut, and I mean that literally. I feel wounded and burst open. But I have to give it five stars because how could I not?
GOOD BITS: This book is an example of how every choice a writer makes can come together and create something akin to perfection (in terms of form). It’s an important theme that’s expressed in such a nuanced way through imperfect characters and a plot structure that allows for a lot of curiosity and ambiguity. I don’t think this book would have been so impactful if it was a linear narrative. The direct, continual contrast between fifteen-year-old and thirty-year-old Vanessa shows the impact of abuse (as opposed to telling the reader a moralistic sermon on the potential impacts of abuse).
NOT SO GOOD BITS: There were times when Vanessa started to annoy me, but I’m not complaining because that’s sort of the point of the book. She’s not a perfect victim. In part, she’s imperfect because her abuser convinced her that she’s bad, dark and twisted. But, I can’t lie, there were times when I wanted to tell her to get a bloody grip. And that’s the beauty of this story. It demonstrates that there is no textbook, perfect abuse and even annoying victims are still victims. Reading this at the same time as the Depp-Heard verdict was very powerful and emotional for me.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Almost Love’ by Louise O’Neill (plot), ‘Thin Girls’ by Diana Clarke (atmosphere) and ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo (theme). The book is based on Lolita and this feels like essential reading for fans of Nabokov. However, I warn you, please do not read this book lightly. I am someone who loves dark books and this was a lot, even for me. But, please do read it when you feel able as it’s a powerful, necessary novel.