CW: Sexual assault, rape.
“When Strane and I met, I was fifteen and he was forty-two, a near perfect thirty years between us. That’s how I described the difference back then – perfect. 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,” (Russell 5).
In 2017, the start of the #MeToo Movement, Vanessa Wye learns that the English teacher at the boarding school she briefly attended has been accused by a student of sexual abuse. Vanessa is then put in a difficult position: should she remain silent or tell the media her own experience, because when Vanessa was fifteen she was in a relationship with this same teacher, is still in contact with this man, but she never saw it as abuse. But as Vanessa looks back at her past and present she starts to come to an understanding of what happened to her all those years ago and how her teacher shaped her life in ways she wasn’t aware of.
My Dark Vanessa was very difficult for me to review because there’s a lot to it and it is magnificent as well as disturbing. I loved Russell’s choice of flipping back between the past and present, of when Vanessa first met Strane to when the accusations against him started and how Vanessa’s view of him and what happened to her started to change as the past made it’s way into the present. I also liked how Russell showed how complicated stories of sexual assault can be to tell, particularly
how the journalist pushing for Vanessa to tell her story started harassing and threatening her and how once the article was written Taylor was also disappointed in it. It brought into question how these stories are told, how they come into the media asking for change but turn into spectacle by the wrong sources. I think Russell also did an excellent job bringing up the complexities of what sexual assault is, as Vanessa struggles to come to terms with what happens and how she demanded Taylor tell her what Strane did to her so she could compare the “severity” of the abuse. It was a natural way of bringing up these ideas without it feeling like reader’s are being told that they should be thinking these, Russell plants the seeds and let’s the starts of discussion grow in reader’s minds.
The book is very difficult to read at times, the assault scenes come casually and are horrific and romanticized when Strane retells them and by Vanessa herself as she goes through the difficult process of accepting the trauma done to her which makes it all more unsettling. For that reason it’s a book that can’t be read quickly, it can be a lot to stomach at times.
But still, My Dark Vanessa deserves the hype. It’s a complicated, necessary, and real story that brings up necessary discussions of sexual assault and the complexities of understanding the trauma. Believe women, believe survivors.
Publication: March 10th 2020
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 373 pages
Genre: Fiction, Dark, Literary
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤⛤
“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 Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.”