Review | My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

I loved the math of it, three times my age, how easy it was to imagine three of me fitting inside him: one of me curled around his brain, another around his heart, the third turned to liquid and sliding through his veins.

In My Dark Vanessa, readers experience firsthand how a teenage girl is groomed and falls for her abuser. In her teenage years, we see Vanessa being made to feel special, important and understood – and this manipulation deepens as Vanessa views herself, and the power Strane claims she has over him, as the problem.

This story’s strength is in showing both Vanessa’s teenage years and her life nearly twenty years later when she’s forced to reevaluate her experiences through the lens of the #MeToo movement. It shows the extent to which Vanessa’s abuse has impacted her everyday life, from her relationships to her career. It was heartbreaking to watch the many ways in which she romanticizes her abuse; Vanessa needs to believe that her relationship with Strane was a love story in order to cope with the trauma that has shaped her identity.

My Dark Vanessa was a dark and haunting read. While it could have benefited from being slightly shorter in length, it was wonderfully written and compelling; despite the discomfort that the subject matter caused, I couldn’t put it down

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