This book is very good and it’s not exactly an easy read.

When published at the height of the #metoo movement, in 2018, it wasn’t without controversy. I’ve been reading about how it draws parallels with another book that explores similar themes, Excavation: A Memoir (by Wendy C. Ortiz) which I might pick up some time*.

Both heavily reference Nabokov’s Lolita or so I understand of the latter, given I haven’t read it yet.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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.

There’s a real beauty in MDV but it’s uncomfortable. While it would be nice to believe, as Vanessa does, that this is a love story against all odds, we’re privy to a point of view that suggests otherwise. As our protagonist sifts through the memories of her relationship with Jacob Strane, 27 years her senior, she also maintains a relationship with him in present day. While here in the moment their connection is no longer physical, their lives are still interwoven.

As a child of just 15, she embarks on a deep love affair with her teacher that almost costs her everything – her schooling, her family, her friendships. But when a former pupil of Strane’s comes forwards in 2017 to accuse him of sexual assault, now 32-year-old Vanessa is forced to examine it all again. While she’s reluctant to accept she’s a victim of anything, her conviction begins to waver.

The novel tackles themes of consent, sexual coercion, victimhood and the concept of loyalty to the sisterhood – by refusing to betray Strane, is Vanessa selfish and letting down the victims of his future attentions?

Honestly, I loved it. It’s well-written and poetic, painting the obsession between Strane and Vanessa vividly. As a voyeur I found the descriptions of their sexual encounters really uncomfortable to read and I hated Strane, as I expect I’m supposed to. There’s no way we’re expected to sympathise with Strane, who’s a manipulative predator but as Vanessa unwraps her time with him, he becomes grotesque. Her descriptions of him (and the way he makes her feel) aren’t flattering, which sets off alarm bells at every turn – though it did make me think about teenage obsession and how I might have interpreted the sexual attention of my favourite teacher at the same age. (Mr Dobson would never).

There’s a lot to unpack here and there’s really only one way to form your own opinions but I cried at the end, which is beautiful and hopeful. Vanessa is a character I really wanted to root for and her recovery makes me happy. I get this is fiction but it’s only fiction in this instance, this is a real life story that will be all too familiar to so many women.


What are you reading?

*This is quite an interesting article about My Dark Vanessa and it’s comparisons to Excavation, if you’re interested.