I delayed writing the review for this book for quite a while since I was still sorting out my feelings about it and trying to wrap my head around the “controversy” that surrounded it for some time on Twitter. My Dark Vanessa is a very intense book and one that deserves time and needs time. So, now that I’ve had some of that, I can’t wait to write out my thoughts. Thanks to 4th Estate and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a honest review.
My Dark Vanessa is a book perfectly fit to its specific moment in time where we are not just trying to out sexual abusers, but where we’re also re-examining what it means to be a victim, how one finds themselves in a situation where wrong and right become muddy. This was the exact situation we were in when I read this novel in March 2020 and I saw its relevance almost every day. We are currently in a very different, important cultural moment and although it is not linked to sexual abuse specifically, it is about power relations, about control, about who gets to tell the story and who gets believed. These broken power structures are so deeply ingrained in our cultures that even when you're looking straight at them you can't always name it. Reading books such as My Dark Vanessa, although fictional, give me a chance to redirect my gaze. And it's not comfortable, but it is necessary.
Vanessa is in her early thirties and so far she has just about held everything together. Nothing is quite right, nothing ever was since then but it's ok since nothing has gone entirely wrong either, as long as she keeps telling herself it was love. My Dark Vanessa is a novel about power, youth, judgement, fear and shame, but also about love. The overarching theme, in my eyes, is story telling, however. Who tells our story? Who has the right to it? And what if someone tells you your own story and you don't recognize it? I don't want to discuss too much of how Strane and Vanessa meet, how the end up entangled and what it means. There is no surprise in it, no shocking betrayals or unexpected twists. Russell does not pretend it is extraordinary, the story she tells, but she manages to highlight the sheer damaging confusion of it all. Is Vanessa complicit? Should she not have understood all the references to Lolita, should she not have taken the escape options available to her? And why can she not let go?
Vanessa is a fascinating character because she is difficult to read about. You'll find yourself feeling bad for not liking her, for not warming to her older self. And then you'll find yourself feeling such a strong, protective fury for the younger Vanessa that will take your breath away. My perspective of Vanessa switched throughout the book as you learn more about her past and present and as I kept finding points of similarity with her. So much of her is recognizable for anyone who has been a young girl, been a teenager in love with books, been a woman searching for herself. And you see all the traps that were laid out, the ones that you accidentally avoided and the ones you walked into with eyes wide open. Vanessa tries to work through her story and it's a hard journey to take with her.
Kate Elizabeth Russell has written a brilliant novel, one whose writing is key to making the story work. My Dark Vanessa made me feel physically ill while reading. Russell would have written something so innocuous it could have been overlooked and yet it began the spiral of deep unease in the pit of my stomach. With every further step Strane had Vanessa take, the unease would become acidic and threaten to spill over. It didn't make for a "fun" reading experience, but it was visceral and I think that is very important for a novel like My Dark Vanessa. When writing about sexual abuse and power relations, it is so easy to slip into sensationalism or virtue signalling, but Russell wrote something deeply emotional that will stick with me for a very long time.
I give this novel...
My Dark Vanessa is a brilliant and terrifying novel that I have been recommending for four months now. It will grip you and you will have to occasionally take a forceful break away from it, but it is a rewarding reading experience.