Review: Vivien Horler
My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins/ Jonathan Ball)
In these times of the revelations of the appetites of the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and the #Me Too campaigns, My Dark Vanessa is a tricksy novel to get your head around.
In 2000 fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil Vanessa Wye has a sexual relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher. She is flattered, excited and convinced that she is in love – and is loved in return. But while she doesn’t believe their relationship is wrong, she’s savvy enough to know it has to be a secret.
The dilemma is: is someone a victim if she doesn’t believe she is one? Even 17 years later, as an adult, she still loves Jacob Strane, and doesn’t think he hurt her. And yet…
The novel interweaves two timelines: the period when Vanessa is at her private boarding school in Maine and goes on to college, and later in her early 30s, when she is working as a concierge in a Portland hotel, drinking a lot and sleeping around; her early promise come to naught.
It emerges that Strane had some form of physical relationship with another girl after Vanessa, and in 2017, when this girl calls him out on Facebook, people are outraged. Strane, still a teacher at the school, is to be investigated.
Which prompts Vanessa to look back. “It wasn’t about how young I was, not for him. Above everything else, he loved my mind… Lurking deep within me, he said, was a dark romanticism, the same kind he saw within himself. No one had ever understood that dark part of him until I came along.”
I know, classic grooming.
After the grown-up Vanessa reads the Facebook posts she phones Strane. She wants him to tell her about their relationship, how real it was. With a pillow between her legs, she asks him to give her a memory.
“Vanessa, you were young and dripping with beauty. You were teenage and erotic and so alive it scared the hell out of me.” He describes them in the chilly office behind his classroom, Vanessa’s skin all goosebumps.
“You were so insatiable,” Strane says. “That firm little body.”
He gives her a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, and then Pale Fire, the Nabokov work from which author Kate Elizabeth Russell takes the title of the novel: “Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,/ My dark Vanessa…”
All this seems creepier here, in this review, than it did reading the book.
Many years later Vanessa realises she is stuck. She tells her therapist she doesn’t remember anything about herself that happened before Strane. She figures she’ll just go on stumbling through life “feeling like an empty husk of a person, drink myself into oblivion, give up”.
But the therapist replies: “You could do that, but I don’t think that’s where this is going to end for you.”
The themes in My Dark Vanessa are uncomfortable and unsettling, but yet the novel is eminently readable. Vanessa remains stoutly supportive of Strane, determined she is not a victim, and angry with the other girl. Yet you sense she knows that in a real sense Strane, as he once predicted, has ruined her.
Can she move on? Can she ever accept that what she experienced was “abuse that looked like love”? By the end there is a sense she can – and achieve resolution.