content warnings: abuse, sexual abuse, pedophelia, grooming
MY DARK VANESSA
BY KATE ELIZABETH RUSSELL
Without a doubt, the saddest book I read in 2021.
Right off the back of the Troop, I fancied reading something a bit more lighthearted than the story of a group of boys being treated like pin cushions, so I picked My Dark Vanessa – with her pretty pink cover, I knew she’d be a dark story, but I thought, not that dark, right?
Then I read the blurb.
My Dark Vanessa sees the world through the eyes of Vanessa Wye in a dual narrative – we see her as a 32-year-old in 2017, living with the implications of everything that happened to her in 2000, when she was 15, where the other half of the story begins. As a high school freshman, Vanessa enrolled in a prestigious boarding school, and she was living her best life. Towards the end of her school year, she has a falling out with her one and only friend. So, when she starts her sophomore year, she is friendless, and it is all too easy for English teacher Jacob Strane to single her out.
So begins his campaign of grooming the fifteen year old Vanessa, who never truly knows what she wants. Obviously. She’s fifteen and being hunted by a man in his forties.
My Dark Vanessa is shocking and terrible. It’s easy as the reader, a 25-year-old woman, to feel very protective of a young Vanessa. It’s easy to relate to her too – I never went through the same traumas that she went through, but I could be lonely when I was her age, too. Vanessa as an adult is also relatable as she fiercely refuses to succumb to the title of victim – she is both steadfast and in denial.. In the years that have passed between the end of the past narrative, she has come to accept that the things that happened to her weren’t all together acceptable, but she’s not like the other girls. This is a fascinating spin on that trope, by the way: Vanessa doesn’t want to be like the other girls, but really not in your standard, very annoying pick-me girl way.
Russell’s depiction of grooming is just scary. Terrifying for a book that’s not strictly a horror. We fall into two minds beside Vanessa – her conscious mind acknowledges a want for the attentions of Jacob Strane, but her subconscious is repulsed by him; she writhes under his touch and feels so wrong when their relationship advances. She acknowledges that she has a crush, but goes onto illustrate that she feels crushed. She wants to convey to the reader that being with Strane makes her feel weightless, like it’s a good thing, but really she’s disassociating.
Everything spirals away from Vanessa. Her mind has been warped and she is now convinced that it is her charge to protect Strane. When, finally, her peers catch a glimpse of what is happening and try to save her, she rejects any help offered to her and her situation only gets worse and worse and worse.
I think Russell expertly captures the mindset of a lot of teenaged girls; the ones who want to be special, to be noticed, who don’t fully realise their worth, their power, or how special they already are. The desire to be desirable is warped and twisted around a primal fear that Vanessa feels when a fantasy becomes reality, and as she loses agency over the situation, she sadly comes to realise that she never really wanted to understood what she was fantascising about.
My Dark Vanessa will have you in knots – you will be sad, but you will be hopeful. Journeying through the narrative with Vanessa is holding the hand of someone who just truly doesn’t want to hold your hand. She is unruly and in denial, but still I couldn’t help but feel desperately attached to her. I had a lot of patience for her, even when she fell to the same old pitfalls. If you want something deeply affective, thought-provoking, and sad, you should pick up Vanessa.
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