Stephen King called this book “a package of dynamite”, and it is. The writing is dark, shocking, occasionally nauseating and will rightly be labelled “brave”. Actually, you have to be pretty brave to read it. It is hard to witness the repeated rape of a girl who is filled with longing and desire for a monstrous man. Strane (he is never Jacob) makes Vanessa complicit: calling her “the same as me. Separate from others, craving dark things”. Vanessa is a classic victim who protects her abuser, but even as a 15-year-old, she recognises her perverse potency as an illegal object of desire.
This is a pedagogical novel in more than one sense, a work of fiction that also wants to be a work of reference: here is how an abusive relationship develops between an insecure teenager and a sexual predator; here is why it sometimes takes years for a victim to tell her story; here is how institutions have failed to protect victims of sexual abuse; here is how buried trauma can affect a life. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched. Vanessa’s prolonged insistence that Strane isn’t a paedophile paedophile, or that if she agreed to spend the night at his house then it wasn’t rape rape, speaks to a wider culture of equivocation. Her eventual acceptance of what really took place banishes ambiguity and affirms the #MeToo movement’s simple politics of right and wrong. I read it with the sense of duty I reserve for learning about terrible things in the world.
Like Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, My Dark Vanessa deals with power, truth and the identity of a woman trying to reclaim a sense of self after sexual trauma. It packs a punch and will unearth difficult feelings in the reader, especially in its political message of questioning the public and the private sphere, asking who owns the right to feel indignant, how we re-paint victims who have already been painted by their experience. A sharp debut that tunnels through you.
Russell’s characterisation of Strane, a loathsome lump of a man who expertly lies to, manipulates and exploits Vanessa while always ensuring his own safety, is excellent, as is her depiction of how the adults around Vanessa choose to avoid, ignore or abet what he does. Vanessa herself is less well realised. Russell gives her a rather flat voice: Vanessa’s account is conveyed in a reportage style reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s and one that, like Rooney’s, requires either vivid action or a rich interior to work.
As a work of fiction, My Dark Vanessa is absolutely gripping – especially in the first half where Vanessa is a lonely Maine schoolgirl with a burgeoning crush on her English teacher. Written in the first person without hindsight, it’s a brilliant depiction of how grooming feels from the inside. You see exactly why she was attracted to this older man: he feeds the girl’s teenage sense of being painfully different by constantly telling her she’s “special”, they are both rare “dark romantics”, and that by driving him wild, it is shethat has power over him... The novel loses its urgency a little in the second half, as Vanessa flounders through adulthood. Russell presents events in a way that cleverly allows us to see wrongness even as her narrator insists on rightness, rather than delving deep psychologically. But it’s a darkly compelling story, and surely destined to find an audience worthy of that advance.
Despite its moody atmosphere, My Dark Vanessa feels as if the entire story has been placed under harsh UV lighting. And just in case you missed all the signposts about what you’re supposed to think and feel, Russell has created a complementary paedophilia-themed playlist on Spotify: the Police’s Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Britney Spears’s ... Baby One More Time and Lana Del Rey all feature prominently. It feels faintly fetishistic and, like much about the novel, left me with an icky feeling.
It’s a story reminiscent of last year’s Leaving Neverland documentary, in which Wade Robson and James Safechuck explained their lingering devotion to Michael Jackson even after he subjected them to alleged sexual abuse. These perspectives from victims bring an important truth into focus, one that makes this novel valuable: that the damage is not simply in the act itself, but in the way it can for ever distort a person’s sense of what is north and what is south, what is right and what is wrong, and what they do or don’t deserve to suffer.
Vanessa is 15 when she's groomed and seduced by her English teacher, Jacob Strane, and continues an often strained relationship with him into her 30s. Until, post-#MeToo, other former pupils accuse Strane of sexual abuse. Vanessa is forced to confront the truth about her 'love affair' - that her consent was really coercion - in this staggering debut novel, which is a difficult, even triggering, but worthwhile read.
This was, at times, an uncomfortable read about Vanessa, who is 15 when she has sex with her teacher. We then see her as a 32-year-old, with her former teacher being investifated for the sexual abuse of another student. Brilliant storytelling meant that I read sections holding my breath.
Russell's debut stood out for me in an extremely strong month for debut fiction. It tells of the sexual relationship between a 15-year-old girl, Vanessa Wye, and her 45-year-old high school English teacher, Jacob Strane. The novel opens in 2017 with 32-year-old Vanessa discovering that another former pupil of Strane's has accussed him of sexual abuse and a journalist wants Vanessa to corroborate the story. But the story Vanessa has told herself for years, over and over again, is that her relationship with Strane was loving, not abusive. He was the great love of her life.