Originally published: 31 March 2020
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by: 4th Estate
Length: 384 pages
Reading dates: 7-12 November 2019
My Dark Vanessa is being touted as the biggest debut fiction book of 2020 and the hype made me so desperately want to read it. Luckily, at a recent 4th Estate Event I managed to grab a copy and also got to listen to Kate Elizabeth Russell talk about the book which made me want to read it all the more! So for the first time ever in my almost 2 years of blogging, I have read a book way ahead of it’s publication date!
Vanessa Wye was fifteen-years-old when she first had sex with her English teacher.
She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.
Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that.
Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.
Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age.
Told over dual timelines, and purely from Vanessa’s viewpoint, we meet her as a 15 year old girl in the year 2000, talented in writing and poetry but a bit of a loaner at Browick boarding school. Her English teacher, Jacob Strane essentially grooms her, first touching her knee while he looks at her work, describing her hair as being the colour of maple and lending her suggestive books such as Lolita. He plays a clever game, so much so that Vanessa is convinced she is the one who instigated the affair they end up having and that they truly love each other. When everything comes crashing down as it is inevitable it would, we see the effect it has on the rest of Vanessa’s life.
As you can guess from the title, this book is a very dark and uncomfortable read. We see things purely from Vanessa’s point of view and from the outside, the reader can see that Strane is abusing his position as a teacher to start a relationship with Vanessa. It was interesting that her description of him when she first sees him isn’t how handsome he is or that she finds him attractive. She describes him as having wavy black hair, a black beard and glasses. HIs size is the thing most noticeable about him though – not fat but big, broad and very tall. Considering she never says she is attracted to him, it is interesting she ends up falling for his seduction.
What I found most horrifying (apart from the sex scenes between them) is the way everyone was so keen to cover it up. Students soon start to suspect something is going on between them and a parent writes to the school expressing his concerns. Vanessa is called on to see the head teacher who tells her she wants to believe her rather than what is in the letter. Her investigation stems down to the fact that she believes Vanessa is simply one of Strane’s favourite students and that the student who raised the alarm is just jealous. The way they were so keen to brush the whole thing under the carpet is astounding.
When eventually we see it all come crashing down, we stay with Vanessa through the rest of her high school life and then college before she finally ends up working as a hotel receptionist at the age of 32. She is still affected by what happened to her and Strane is still a part of her life. But she is unable to admit to herself it was wrong, despite the new allegations levelled against him, by several other girls.
I felt completely addicted to reading this book – I literally wanted to do nothing else but read it. It made me feel angry, it was disturbing and left me feeling very sad. But it is an important story to read and is very much of it’s time with the #metoo initiative. Russell is a talented writer – this almost felt like a true story as she is so brilliant at getting inside Vanessa’s head and even at the end of the book, I don’t feel Vanessa’s story is over. Vanessa is a complex and flawed character and it is a story that will stay with me I think. A lot of people are saying this is going to be the biggest book of 2020 and I don’t think they are wrong! An astonishing and gripping debut!
Thank you so much to 4th Estate Books for inviting me to the 4th Estate Live event and for providing me with a copy of the proof!
About the author:
Kate Elizabeth Russell was born and raised in eastern Maine. She holds an MFA from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas. My Dark Vanessa is her first novel.