CW: Rape & sexual assault, abuse, child abuse/pedophilia
This book was disturbing and uncomfortable, but also compellingly readable. It did not feel like a “first novel,” and Russell certainly does not come across as a debut author. Writing this book took time, enough time to get it right.
Even though Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is heavily referenced, My Dark Vanessa isn’t really a novel about sexual abuse or pedophilia (though the novel covers two time periods, including the time of the abuse). To me, it was about watching Vanessa realize that what she experienced was not a loving relationship between two consenting adults (she was 15, he was 42). She spends a large portion of the novel in denial about what really happened; she repeats over and over that it wasn’t “rape rape” and that he cared about her. The novel opens in Vanessa’s present (2017), and her life is a mess. The reader can gather that she is suffering from depression and PTSD, though Vanessa wouldn’t call it that. The story switches back and forth between 2017 and Vanessa’s past, beginning with the year 2000 when she is in boarding school and meets Strane. As we read about her time at school, we see how Strane chooses her, grooms her, manipulates her, and lies to her until she believes that she is in a romantic relationship with him that they must keep secret, because others “wouldn’t understand.”
Russell forces the reader to think about the complexities of abusive relationships – how control and manipulation can feel like love if you tell yourself over and over that it is, and how difficult it can be to come forward and talk about that abuse, especially if you’re still experiencing the aftershocks. As Vanessa’s therapist Ruby points out, it is not Vanessa’s responsibility to “tell all” and relive her abuse in order to help enact some kind of justice. Sometimes coming forward to tell the world about what happened to you doesn’t actually help anyone. Vanessa wrestles with this feeling, thinking that she is in some way responsible for what happened to other young girls because she did not tell anyone at the school or her parents about her own abusive experience. Part of the power of this novel comes from Vanessa realizing that none of this is her fault, and she is not responsible for the actions of others. Instead, she was failed by those around her – the school administration for not performing a thorough investigation, her parents for ignoring what they didn’t want to see, and Strane, for…you know…being a pedophile and abusing his position as a teacher.
Every line of this novel is beautifully written, but nothing is romanticized. I thought about this book even when I wasn’t reading it, and I know it’ll be on my mind for a long time. It is haunting, captivating, and inescapable.
My Dark Vanessa comes out on March 10, 2020. If you’re interested in pre-ordering, follow the link below to have it shipped to your local indie bookstore.