Book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

I wrote this review on NetGalley (I was kindly approved to read a digital review copy by 4th Estate), and thought I’d share it here, because why not. I don’t request copies from NetGalley very often, so I try to fulfil the reviewing promise. Happily I also only tend to request books I suspect will be very good, so unsurprisingly, I gave My Dark Vanessa five stars.

The Blurb:


Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when she first had sex with her English teacher.

She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.

Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that.

Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.

Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age.

My review: 

71zWT2VoVwLThis is a difficult book to read, but also a book to be read in one sitting and then thought about for a long time. Russell’s telling of Vanessa’s story is tough and delicate, nuanced, insightful, and contradictory – as is entirely appropriate for a character so completely torn by her experiences. And, crucially, at no point does it ever feel voyeuristic.

It’s a tough read, but very well done; the insight into the mindset of a young girl groomed by her teacher, knowing it is wrong but struggling to come to terms with her experience (‘Groomed. I repeat the word over and over, try to understand what it means, but all I can think of is the lovely warm feeling I’d get when he stroked my hair.’) The abuse and manipulation is clear to the reader, but equally clear is understanding the way Vanessa has to believe that she is special to survive it (and this is a wild understatement on my part – I cannot describe in one sentence the complex mental state that Russell delves into so well). Beautifully done, too, is the arc towards redemption for Vanessa and her successor in abuse.

There is a wealth of reference to relevant literature, and the culture and news of the time – MeToo and the media’s approach to it are not untouched, and Russell pulls no punches. There are such layers to this book that I think it requires more than one reading. I think that in future ‘My Dark Vanessa’ will prove to be obligatory reading alongside ‘Lolita’ or, I hope, to be read as the primary text ahead of Lolita, the voice finally given to the person whose story it was. I think it may find a place, too, in reading for anyone undergoing training in social care and child psychology. It’s an important book, and a very sad one.

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