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.
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.