My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, was published in 2020
This was not an easy read. While the timing is perfect for the #MeToo movement, Russell worked on this novel for several years before anyone was talking about Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein, to name just two. Vanessa is fifteen years old, away at boarding school, when her pedophile English teacher Strane targets her as a lonely outsider and begins grooming her. They carry on a “relationship” over several years, and during that time, Vanessa believes they are in love, often dismissing new accusations of abuse from other students.
The novel is told from Vanessa’s point of view, which is a brilliant technique that shows us how effective this type of abuse can be. Vanessa becomes deluded about the nature of their relationship, but not entirely. Although she can’t admit it to herself, she is aware that he is manipulating her, that she does not actually enjoy being with him. Instead, she lives in vicious cycle of losing and then craving his attention and affection.
One of the most powerful scenes takes place when Vanessa confronts one of Strane’s latest accusers, demanding to know what exactly he did to her. In Vanessa’s mind, Strane groping a teenage girl is acceptable, as long as he did not take it further. Although she seems aware that these details should not matter, she measures abuse on a sliding scale, rather than viewing it from the experience of the victim. In this way, Russell exposes the ugly manner in which some in our society view sexual abuse and shows us that the victim’s experience and perception of that experience must be central to the conversation.
On top of the incredibly timely commentary this novel provides, it is beautifully written with deeply troubled characters. Vanessa, her mother, her father, her dog — they all broke my heart in the best way a novel can. Four stars.