My Dark Vanessa takes place over two key years – in 2000, when Vanessa is fifteen and studying at a prestigious boarding school, and in 2017, when Vanessa is working a dead-end job at a local hotel and trying to avoid contact with a former student. The thing that unites them…Jacob Strane, Vanessa’s English teacher.
For her debut Russell takes on a story that is always going to be difficult to present without alienating readers. A sexual relationship between teacher and pupil will, rightly, never be regarded as anything other than wrong – and the attempts to examine the psychological dynamics of this relationship from Vanessa’s viewpoint did little for me other than highlight the manipulative behaviour of Strane and the damage caused to this girl, and others.
Vanessa recalls the relationship from its starting moment with unusual clarity. From the outset there’s a sense that, on some level, Vanessa recognises this is wholly inappropriate yet she seems determined to romanticise her experience of being groomed and raped by the person who was meant to be one of those protecting her. The author allows Vanessa this, but the construction of the novel means we never see it as anything other than a deceptive and manipulative grooming of a rather naive young woman.
The detail given to Vanessa’s relationship was, perhaps necessarily, explicit but it did not make for comfortable reading. Nor should it! There were so many points in this that I wanted someone to dig that little deeper or act on their evident sense of misgiving about the rumours they’d heard or things they’d seen that just felt off. So many people seemed suspicious of Vanessa’s closeness to Strane, yet did nothing. Hiding in the open seems to be quite the feature of such relationships, and it was definitely interesting to note the changes over the two time periods in how someone like Strane was regarded.
Few characters on the periphery of this relationship come out of it well, and to reflect on your own part in such an event is something people have to deal with in these situations. However, it’s Vanessa’s story so hers is the primary focus.
One of the things that I found slightly off-putting about this (apart from what felt like the gratuitous depiction of their sexual relationship) was what felt like the over-reliance on Lolita and the continual references to Literature that purported to mimic what Vanessa experiences. If you look hard enough you can probably find something to support what narrative you want to spin. For me it was just yet another nail in the coffin highlighting the various techniques used by this predatory male time and time again.
Ultimately, I felt myself feeling quite hostile at times towards Vanessa as she seemed so determined to paint herself as powerful within this experience. I’m all for recognising the growing maturity of someone of this age, and there are definitely questions to consider about the extent to which we should ignore a teen’s growing self-awareness. By the end however, as we see Vanessa start to unravel the complexity of her feelings about the relationship that formed such a monumental part of her life, I came to see her in quite a different way.
This was not a hopeful book. It doesn’t particularly resolve anything, but it certainly puts the reader in a position to examine a story they may feel they’ve heard before in a different way. It certainly will get people talking, which I think is a starting point.