My Dark Vanessa – A Review

Hello! Today I thought I’d give writing a book review a go – this isn’t the kind of post I’m used to writing but I’m mainly doing so to see if it’s something I’d enjoy – reading and writing are my favourite things to do so maybe writing about reading will end up being something I do more of!

I’ve had my eye on ‘My Dark Vanessa’ since peach covered proofs started to hit my Twitter and Instagram feeds months ago. Exploring protagonist Vanessa Wye’s relationship with her English teacher, Jacob Strane, and its ongoing impact on her life as, many years later, accusations of sexual assault towards him and others begin to role in, it’s definitely a jarring read. Part of me was admittedly sceptical about whether the novel would bring anything new to conversations regarding abusive relationships, consent and current movements and I steered away from reading about the author or the novel’s controversies, not wanting anything to influence my initial reading. But ultimately, I found a novel that tackles issues of victimhood, consent and how this all fits into the #MeToo era in a nuanced and incredibly emotive way.

One of the things that struck me most about the novel was Vanessa’s struggle with the idea of victimhood – her painful inability to reconcile her expectations of what a victim should be with her own perceived agency and consent in her relationship with Strane. It’s something I think anyone who has ever been in abusive or toxic relationship might be able to identify with – that uncomfortable feeling that something bad has happened to you but that your own behaviour must surely negate from the validity of any resulting trauma. This, combined with Vanessa’s vulnerability during her years at private school left me feeling, in some ways, more connected with her character than I expected to.

That vulnerability and it’s complete exploitation, which Russell expresses so well, is what makes the novel truly devastating. Vanessa, like so many of us when at high school, struggles with feeling unseen and disconnected from those around her. The cruelty of the novel is that, not only is it this very human feeling that allows Strane to groom her in the first place, but it is his manipulation of this feeling; always creating the illusion that Vanessa is in control, able to consent, possessing agency, that not only results in a feeling of ‘otherness’ throughout Vanessa’s adult life, but leaves her feeling as if she is to blame – as if it is that ‘difference’ that means such a relationship could happen to her. The way this manipulation drips through the novel, happening slowly and becoming increasingly apparent as the relationship progresses, leaves you feeling all the more empathetic for Vanessa. The nervousness, the excitement, the familiarity of having a crush portrayed alongside the sinister and increasing cruel behaviour of Strane makes the situation feel truly heartbreaking.

The #MeToo movement’s involvement in the novel fit well with the overarching plot and I found the portrayals of what the movement means for different women to be really well expressed – the opportunistic journalist using awful experiences as a ticket to some sort of woke success, the victim empowered by identifying and exploring her experience, the woman just trying to get through and build her life up and away from abuse. The awful ramifications that women suffer through when they come forward were something I wish any sceptic of the #MeToo movement could read – because this novel is not just a blanket ‘believe women’, it’s an exploration of the ways in which they are failed by the institutions with a duty of care towards them and the way in which their experiences, and their coming forward, are painful and conflicting and far more complex than whether they are a victim or not, whether they are empowered or vilified.

Part of me often felt a little frustrated with Vanessa’s character, though this is no failing of the book at all – whilst it might have been easy to add in traits that would have made her more endearing or likeable, it would’ve also undermined one of the messages of the novel itself. Vanessa should not need to be a palatable character, one who is always easy to empathise with and pity (though she is often that, too) – she should be a human, just trying to understand herself, her experiences, what they mean for her and how she can go on to live a life she is content with. And the public aren’t to own victims, to lay claim to their lives.

I’ve been wondering if, after finishing My Dark Vanessa, I should re-read Lolita for the first time since high school, and how a second reading might impact my perception of both books. It still feels deeply unsettling to hear the occasional reference to Lolita as a love story, and I’d hope that a copy of My Dark Vanessa falls into the hands of any who perceive it so… Not only is it challenging, but My Dark Vanessa is thoughtful, devastating and nuanced – a brilliant sit down and devour kinda’ read.

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