Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel, My Dark Vanessa (2020) has had a massive impact on its readers since it was first published in 2020. Russell explores the complicated topics of rape, victimhood, manipulation, but also first love that might not always go the dreamy way we imagine as young teenagers.
After three years of My Dark Vanessa being on the bookshelves in nearly every bookstore I have visited, I have finally got around to reading this novel for my American Literature class, not knowing what I will experience.
My Dark Vanessa actually became one of the books I hope I’ll never have to read again. To explain, it is not because Russell is not a good writer and she provided us with a trashy novel. It is because she is a great writer and she made me feel some of the roughest emotions that to this day I have not yet digested.
The novel opens in the year 2017 when Vanessa is 32 years old and reminisces about the past and reflects on her memories with Strane with so much denial that what they had was a real thing, love even.
My Dark Vanessa follows two parallel storylines: one takes us to the year 2000 when the eponymous protagonist and narrator of this complicated story, Vanessa Wye, is only 15 years old.
The other plot line takes place 17 years later when Vanessa is in her thirties and slowly starts to recover from what she experienced when she was just a teenager. What does she need to recover from, you ask? Since the age of 15, Vanessa has been having an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, that traumatizes her for the years that follow, but she does not choose to believe this at the time.
I particularly enjoyed the language of a 15-year-old Vanessa who, being the unreliable narrator, felt like she was telling her story as if she was writing a diary. The first-person narration works much better than the third-person narration would.
Vanessa, as not only the protagonist of the story but also the one who shares it with us, tells the story from her personal point of view, as she experienced things and how she felt, making it much harder not to sympathize with her and feeling sort of sorry for her blinding herself to the truth that is so blatantly obvious.
Russell manages to capture the reader’s attention by being able to deeply and cleverly describe the way Vanessa feels as a teenager. We are given everything a true teenager is like: be it Vanessa’s constant change of moods, her desperation for first love, or not giving too much effort into anything, much like a typical teenager would do, right?
There is only one exception to the rule, and that is her affair with Jacob Strane, with whom she becomes progressively obsessed. Vanessa at 15 years of age has had no sexual experiences nor does she seem to be particularly interested in boys of her age. The whole thing starts as mere innocent compliments from Strane towards Vanessa’s writing and things take a rather different turn before one manages to blink.
Vanessa is kept in dark about the truth of their affair and what kind of an affair it actually is. She goes on to believe that she is special even though several years have gone by. One might be asking how can she be in such a state of denial after so many years have passed. I have made up my own mind about this.
Throughout the book, Vanessa is being manipulated into sex with her English teacher: he compliments her writing, her beauty, and intelligence and one of the most powerful weapons I think he has is a novel he gives her as a gift: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. One might not think much of this gesture unless you have read Lolita or are at least familiar with the plot of the novel, then you might be taken aback a bit too, just as I was.
Vanessa reads Lolita back and forth and guards the book with her life. She goes as far as to believe that he is Humbert and she must be Dolores. This, I believe, is something that also contributes to Vanessa’s great efforts to convince herself that her affair with Strane, was a love story. She is not provided with a different similar story that will show her that she is the victim of a predator.
Vanessa stays utterly oblivious to the fact that she has been manipulated into sex with Strane and lets herself be convinced that what they have is a love story. Why wouldn’t she believe this? Strane compliments her, tells her on many occasions he loves her and overall drives slowly drives her to where he needs her to be: in a position where she won’t speak up.
The clear references and borrowings from Lolita are my favourite thing about My Dark Vanessa. You can simply not deny that without the influence of Lolita on Vanessa, the story might have not been that powerful.
Overall, Russell did a great job exploring the point of view of the victim. However, one notion relating to this that has been discussed among many is that My Dark Vanessa is the re-telling of Lolita from the victim’s point of view. I have dared to completely dismiss this idea.
Nabokov’s Lolita focuses on something utterly different. The way I see it is that My Dark Vanessa is the echo of the #MeToo movement. Russell’s novel does provide valuable insight into the head of the victim and how Vanessa is continuously manipulated into believing what the predator wants: to silence her. Despite me not wanting to re-read this piece anytime soon, Russell made me feel a lot, and it should always be appreciated when an author manages to awaken that in a reader.
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