MY DARK VANESSA
BY KATE ELIZABETH RUSSELL
'My Dark Vanessa' by Kate Elizabeth Russell is not an easy read but there is no denying it promotes interesting conversations, especially in relation to the #metoo era making it a perfect Wild Card choice. Shortlisted for the 2021 Dylan Thomas Prize (for young writers) and now available in paperback.
The book is written in the first person by Vanessa. Whilst boarding at Browick High School in Maine, Vanessa is groomed by her English teacher, Strane (she always refers to him by his surname) and so begins a dark and controlling relationship. From this point on, this dangerous relationship defines her every being and the trauma it causes her can be quite overwhelming to read at times. Strane draws Vanessa in by seeking her out, praising her writing and choosing texts for her to read. When he selects 'Lolita', Vanessa becomes fixated with it and starts comparing their relationship to the book. Interestingly, Russell admits that reading 'Lolita' had a huge impact on her and she still reads the book regularly.
As the relationship develops, so Vanessa’s peers and teachers begin to suspect but whenever an opportunity arises to hold Strane accountable, Vanessa fails to accuse him. She never believes she is the victim, but rather seeing their relationship as something she wanted and found empowering. She tells her flatmate at college “He worshipped me. I was lucky”. However, you only need to judge from her life beyond college, when in her thirties her potential has not been realised; she lives in a messy apartment drinking and smoking too much and is unable to form a long-term commitment.
There are so many dimensions to this book around the issues of grooming, dehumanisation, abuse of power from both sides and manipulation by a predator. Parallel to this is the failure of the school and Vanessa’s parents to understand the severity of the situation and what is the right course of action.
Oprah refused to allow this book in her book club as she feared the unwelcome controversy around it. But surely constructive debate about difficult topics is what makes a good book club choice and after all – even if some of the story may have had autobiographical influences – this is a book of fiction.