Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, “My Dark Vanessa,” is an enticing story that has a way of making a reader both uncomfortable yet fascinated with what it has to say about ever-evolving cultural shifts — especially in regards to what society considers a healthy relationship.
The book takes place in 2017 amid the #MeToo movement, a time when powerful men were finally being held accountable for sexual misconduct. For the main character, Vanessa Wye, the person in her life accused of inappropriate behavior is her former English teacher Jacob Strane, a man she became involved with when she was only 15 years old.
“My Dark Vanessa” does an excellent job of going in depth on how such an illicit affair can start, especially in the flashback chapters. The novel details the ways Strane took advantage of Wye’s vulnerability by taking the time to make her feel wanted and heard.
Because of his actions, Vanessa finds him an interesting yet intimidating figure whose praise and attention becomes earnestly sought after. Her boundaries are tested to determine if things between them will continue or not. Any form of rejection or discomfort is seen as a misstep in her head, so any doubts must be placed on the back burner to prevent the risk of having her love taken away from her.
Self-awareness from both sides characterizes “My Dark Vanessa,” though each one chooses to fight it off to give in to their desires. Innocence begins to disappear slowly but surely as careful actions are taken so that other lines aren’t forcibly crossed.
The fantasy versions of each other that they’ve created do not include normal, mundane things. It is all about excitement behind closed doors. He claims to see her as a brilliant kindred spirit, making her do her best to keep that facade going by not questioning or showing reluctance.
Pop culture references to jailbait are also thrown into the mix along with references to various “forbidden romances.” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” for example, is discussed along with Edgar Allen Poe’s real-life marriage to his teenage cousin.
Not to mention talks of teenage Wye’s love for music icons Fiona Apple and Britney Spears — two female singers known for their youthful, alluring personas. It is relevant to point this out as it not only helps showcase the age gap and differing mindsets between the two, but also how some of these interests are downplayed as nothing more than popular influences to help encourage the affair.
There are dark moments, of course, where reality will come and rear its ugly head. If it is not in the way Wye feels obligated to perform certain acts, it is in the way Strane’s predatory nature comes to the surface to practically force himself on her, despite her showing visible discomfort.
This goes on throughout “My Dark Vanessa” as the flashbacks carry on to the present day. No matter what, she is always willing to submit herself to him and his desires even when they’re mostly one-sided. All she cares about is having him stay to make her feel special.
Strane’s manipulative actions that Wye considers romantic is a perfect example of “grooming,” a term often used in cases like this where a relationship is built on twisted forms of trust and emotional connections.
When it becomes strong enough, the pursuer can then take advantage of the situation by exploiting and abusing their victim in any way they please. Strane does an excellent job in doing this with the way he takes his time to gain Wye’s trust and saying the right things to keep her compliant.
“My Dark Vanessa” gives readers the chance to look through the lens of a victim who lives her life in a delusional denial that follows her even when she reaches adulthood. The abuse Wye endured as a child is not looked at as such. Instead, she sees it all in a way that paints both her and Strane as victims of circumstance, consenting beings that were placed in an unconventional setting.
She has been made aware enough to realize that the “fantasy” aspect of it all has fizzled out, but does what she can to hold on to it as if she needed to believe there was more to it than what the rest of society would tell her.
Even after all this time, and with more allegations of sexual misconduct being attached to his name, Strane is still able to have a hold on her. The proverbial tug of war over control in the relationship (which was first displayed by his growing possessiveness) is also shown in the way she now wants some type of assurance that she was the only one. The only one he at least cared for. Because even if she questions their time together from time to time, she still needs to believe that it was love.
Russell writes“My Dark Vanessa” in such a haunting yet intimate way that gives a reader an unsettling feeling while somehow keeping them from putting the book down. It gives them an almost too realistic portrayal of how a troubling situation can produce long-lasting results. It is as thought-provoking as it is brutally honest. A must-read for those who want a unique take on this particular topic.