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Powerful and painful

Cover of My Dark Vanessa
A review of My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa is a debut novel that got a lot of initial buzz when it was first published and is now getting renewed interest from readers on social media. It absolutely deserves every bit of that. It's an incredible, disturbing, and timely story - one that has stuck with me long after I read the last page.

The novel alternates between the titular Vanessa's present and her past. In the past she was a 15-year-old who won a spot at a prestigious boarding school. But once there she found herself isolated and lonely and susceptible to the offer of friendship, that becomes something far darker, from her 40-something English teacher. Jacob Strane was the only one who seemed to get her and she fell further and further under his spell. In the present day, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, another young woman has come forward and accused Strane of abuse and she reaches out to Vanessa to support her story. Vanessa is sent into a tailspin, not least because she's never been able to admit to herself just what happened with Strane and the long-lasting, detrimental effects it had on her life. She knows on some level that the relationship hurt her, but she cannot admit it, even to herself.

When I picked this up I was sure that the subject matter would make it difficult going and that I probably would only read it in fits and starts. I was right about the difficult part, but wrong about the pace with which I read. This is a nuanced, painful, powerful and compulsively readable book that is beautifully and powerfully written. Enough superlatives? I started and finished it in one night because it was just that gripping and good. I do highly recommend this for most readers. But for some the triggers for rape and sexual abuse will be very hard going and will make this one to avoid.

Aug 21, 2023