Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

One of my blogging aims this year is to review all the books on my 21 books and 21 ebooks for 2021 list. Over ambitious? That may be! My Dark Vanessa is a book I had heard whisperings of really positive things. I found it in the Kindle sale after Christmas and knew I had to read it as I love books with moral dilemmas which echo real life events and that really make us think.

Title: My Dark Vanessa

Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell

Publication Date : 10th March 2020

Genre: Psychological Fiction

Format: ebook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Goodreads Synopsis

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 RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

My Thoughts

My Dark Vanessa really packed a punch! Relationships with a minor are a difficult topic which have featured in numerous books and I felt this one really picked apart the grooming process, victim shaming and the resulting trauma this can have.

For me, Vanessa was a very likeable, but flawed character – in short, a typical teenager. Although, this is certainly not a book for young adults. I particularly enjoyed the way that Russell played with the alternating narratives of flashbacks and the present day as this helped to bring more nuance to the story as we saw the impact that this had on the character 17 years later.

This book is challenging in its depiction of trauma which results in substance abuse and severe depression for Vanessa. I think this could be very triggering for some people. However, what I considered this to be incredibly important in showing the impact that this “romance” had.

Throughout the book, Vanessa is conflicted as she considered her relationship with her teacher, Strane, to be one of mutual love and an unfortunate circumstance of falling in love with the right person at the wrong time. It soon becomes clear that this is not the case and she was most certainly groomed. Some of the scenes, such as when they have sex – scratch that, when she is raped, because really that is what it was – were so uncomfortable. But they needed to be. We cannot glorify this. What I particularly enjoyed about this though was that teenage Vanessa realised that she didn’t really want to sleep with this man, but she felt like she had to. Although not necessarily in this specific situation, I wonder how many people have slept with someone because they felt they had to or couldn’t say no. In my opinion, this book carries the important message of the need for sex positivity and empowerment to say what we want, and to be able to notice when a relationship is toxic – but I think this is easier said than done.

The book has come at a really important time in our social history in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement. The storyline with the journalist who wanted to interview Vanessa, alongside another of Strane’s victims, was very potent as it shows the media’s double-edged sword – while media coverage can be a power for good, there is the risk of exploiting vulnerable people in the pursuit of a good story. I think it also presented the pressure of opening up and talking about trauma really well, and I felt that the psychologist that Vanessa sees was a fantastic and empathetic character. These scenes really got to the heart of the trauma.

This book was dark, emotional and very challenging in its themes and I thought it was brilliant.

Have you read My Dark Vanessa, or any other books with this trope? Let me know in the comments!


3 thoughts on “Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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