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Today, we are going to talk about a book that addresses child sexual and emotional abuse. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a realistic and uncomfortable novel. It explores the life of Vanessa who had been groomed and raped by her English teacher, and how this trauma was deeply repressed as she became an adult to a point that she defended Strane’s actions as she believed it was a love story.
My Dark Vanessa was chosen as a prompt from my Spotify Wrapped playlist. You can find out the rest of the books on my list by watching my Youtube video: Spotify Chooses My TBR!
published in March 2020
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
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.
TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE, PEDOPHILIA, GASLIGHTING, CHILD PORNOGRAPHY, FATPHOBIC COMMENTS
My Dark Vanessa did not make me sad. Rather, as I read Vanessa’s story, there was a resignation I could not ignore. If I had to be honest, it was a tired kind of sad that I felt.
I read a comment of someone asking, “What was missing in Vanessa’s childhood that made her such easy pickings?” I wonder why we continue to ask this when it should be, “What was missing in our system that allowed a man like Jacob Strane to continue teaching?” To ask, what might be wrong with the victim is just victim blaming.
What makes My Dark Vanessa important to me is how it shows the manipulation of the abuser from the perspective of the younger Vanessa and the realization that comes years later. When you’re young it can be hard to understand how being told you’re mature for your age or you have a dark romantic side is a red flag rather than a compliment. To better cope with the trauma, Vanessa turned it into an illusion of a love story. From her lifestyle and her emotions, you can tell how deeply Strane’s abuse hurt Vanessa. And yet I could relate to Vanessa wanting to keep it as a love story. Because to admit that it was rape was to admit the violence of it. It’s this admission of a lack of control that makes abuse victims more scared.
“Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa
One theme that clearly stood out in My Dark Vanessa is the “good victim” narrative. In Lolita’s case, Lolita is blamed for being provocative and unbearable. In the same way does Jacob Strane treat Vanessa. He manipulates her into thinking that it is her fault, her beauty and intelligence, that makes Strane “love” her. He plays the part of desperate man willing to risk career and reputation for Vanessa when truly he was a monster. A victim is only considered a victim if they fit society’s definition of a “good girl.” It’s my fault if I’m out drinking or if my skirt is an inch shorter. It’s my fault for laughing when I should have been angry. Funnily enough, even if you fit society’s standards to a T, you are still to blame for leaving a window open or in Vanessa’s for simply walking into Strane’s classroom.
“I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.”Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa
Another theme of the novel that I want to explore more is the media’s abuse of rape victims. People are coerced into airing traumas they’re not ready to face. When we choose not to, we’re somehow seen as holding back the movement. Yet why is it on victims to bear the burden of the injustice? Why must we declare it to the public to be believed? Reading that made me so angry and disgusted.
Let me just say, if you are reading this looking to understand what makes young girls a target, that is the wrong mindset. This book is an exploration of repressed trauma, emotional manipulation and the struggle of victims to take control of the narrative. There is so much more I could talk about from this book but, to be honest, I am too tired to go in depth about how the adults failed Vanessa, the symptoms of PTSD and the things we do to survive sexual assault. Perhaps I’ll expound on this review one day.
🌸 Have you read My Dark Vanessa or would you choose to?
🌸 As content creators whose work relies on social media, what can we do to support and advocate for sexual abuse survivors?
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