Thoughts on books, family, and life in one impressive package.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is one of the most challenging books I have ever experienced, including horror stories and even Lolita. It is not a novel that one enjoys reading; there is nothing enjoyable about it. Instead, it is the type of novel one appreciates for its unflinching look at something most people want to avoid. I didn’t just appreciate it; Ms. Russell blew my mind with it.

There is so much to discuss within the confines of My Dark Vanessa. It would be too easy to focus on the apparent grooming Vanessa experiences through her teacher, the sexual abuse, and the psychological abuse that adult readers can see, but the fifteen-year-old protagonist cannot. Any scene with Strane is cringy and so wrong that you can barely stomach them, even those that occur when Vanessa is an adult, and such relationships are less disgusting and more socially permissible. But to focus on Strane and the sheer wrongness of his actions is just the top layer of the story.

What makes My Dark Vanessa so fascinating is that Vanessa does not see herself as a victim. Throughout the novel, she insists that she is in control of her relationship with Strane, all while marveling at the power she holds over him. Even though she does show cracks in that wall as the story progresses, you can’t help but wonder if she is right. While there is no doubt that Strane uses his size and authority to his advantage, the scenes of which are not for the faint of heart or mind, you still wonder if she had some agency in the affair. One can argue that at fifteen, there is no such thing as agency, but is that true? The questions you end up having about this idea of agency and power are endless, and I love that Ms. Russell does not play into black-and-white scenarios. I don’t know if I always agree with her about it, but I appreciate what she does.

The other reason I love My Dark Vanessa so hard is the difficult choice Vanessa makes not to come forward and share her story to incriminate Strane. A line towards the end talks about how not everyone is meant to share their story of abuse. Written during the height of the #metoo movement, this idea of choosing to remain silent versus publicly sharing a traumatic story is so powerful and one we often forget as women seek justice to right the wrongs of centuries of patriarchy and misogyny. The line makes you stop reading and forces you to take the time to think about what it means to share or not share.

While the Harvey Weinstein case shows one aspect of sexual abuse and predatory behavior, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell shows an entirely different viewpoint, one in which statutory rape and long-term sexual and psychological abuse are not as black and white as we might want it to be. There is no doubt that Vanessa has some control over her relationship, but the question is whether she holds as much as she thinks. Ms. Russell raises plenty of other questions while showing how her relationship with Strane impacts Vanessa’s adulthood. I always enjoy books with no easy answers because you can’t stop thinking about them. The lack of solutions and the growing number of questions I kept asking got me through the roughest scenes and allowed me to finish a book that made me physically nauseous, sick at heart, confused, and just a little stunned.

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