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Review: My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell)

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.

My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell) 4/5 Stars

This is a difficult review to write, both for the painful content it covers and for the simple fact that I thought the book was perfect. I think this has to be the first book to make me feel both uncomfortable and captivated at once. I was completely enthralled by Vanessa’s story from the get-go but it was definitely an emotionally draining read.

*TW: The book involves rape, grooming, gaslighting, sexual abuse, suicide*

Story

The story is heartbreakingly ugly. It bravely tackles both physical and psychological trauma, and while it rightfully vilifies predatory behaviour it also challenges the reader to understand something that seems so wrong in the narrative of victimhood: that Vanessa does not see herself as a victim. Russell perfectly captures the complexity of emotions involved in grooming. Vanessa doesn’t want to condemn her teacher. She even maintains a relationship with him even as an adult, even whilst all his history of abuse is coming to light.

It highlights a very valid reaction to trauma. A reaction that isn’t often discussed. Vanessa’s account is almost romanticised, and while it is extremely uncomfortable to see it put this way, it’s a powerful way to explore the effects of manipulation that many victims experience.

We read as Vanessa is slowly groomed by Strane, as he takes advantage of her vulnerability and inexperience. The brainwashing of Vanessa is so extreme that it extends off the page and into our experience as the reader. Their power imbalance is captured so well he is at once magnetic and manipulative.

Characters

Kate Elizabeth Russell handles the protagonist Vanessa with care and does a good job of showing the struggle to face what she experienced. Her experiences and the way she remembers them and how that changes over time is expertly managed and feels honest. You see how destructive this kind of abuse is and how it’s manipulated to make Vanessa sees herself as the problem. There is this constant claustrophobic quality to the prose, which does have the effect of wanting to just put the book down and escape Vanessa’s story. For me, it only increased my interest in the book, wanting to follow Vanessa to the end, to ensure she’ll be okay.

One of the main reasons I only gave this one four stars rather than five is that there are many secondary characters, people Vanessa meets on the course of growing up, that are just one-dimensional. This includes her parents. But saying this, this could simply be necessary for highlighting just how detached Vanessa is from others, but it did take away from the book a little bit.

Ending

Is it a satisfying ending? No, not by a long shot.

Despite some resolutions, there is no happy ending here. But it is a good ending, an ending that allows Vanessa character growth. But much like real life, deep trauma sadly isn’t always healed.  People will always have differences of opinion and experience and this book simply explored a different experience.

The ending and the relationships with other characters felt realistic. For me, it was the best ending this book could possibly have, with the storyline around real social issues.  

Yes, this book is a very uncomfortable read and that’s why you’ll see so many mixed reviews. It’s not a ‘fun’ read, it’s dark and disturbing, showing the long-term effects of the abuse on Vanessa’s whole life.

I do recommend this book but be warned it’s a heavy read. I think it has a lot of important things to say and it’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read.

You can purchase My Dark Venessa via Amazon.

READ MORE: The Marsh King’s Daughter Review

 

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