**(TW – grooming, rape and sexual assault)**
15-year-old Vanessa is struggling through her teenage years, until one year at school, she becomes wrapped up in a secret romantic relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher, Mr Strane.
Almost 20 years later, Vanessa has left school, but Strane still lingers on her mind. It seems that no matter where she goes or what she does, the memory of him haunts her. When other allegations of Strane’s predatory behaviour begins to circulate, Vanessa is faced with a dark and difficult dilemma – does she remain loyal to the person she believed once loved and worshipped her, or does she redefine her past and come to terms with what happened to her?
This was a particularly hard book to read and review. I didn’t enjoy reading My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, but it was very well written and made me think a lot, and I think that’s why I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.
Vanessa is a very complex character, which is even more apparent in the present-day scenes. The book jumps between Vanessa as a 15-year-old at school and present day, so we really see how her relationship with Strane impacted her life and still continues to consume her. My heart broke for her when reading the scenes of her childhood, and how almost obsessed she was with gaining Strane’s attention and approval. In her later years, I found it so frustrating when Vanessa would deny she was abused or needed any help, when from an outsider’s perspective, everything that happened with Strane was illegal and disgusting. But this got me thinking – she is still clearly traumatised and overwhelmed by what happened that she doesn’t know how to process her emotions, so who am I to tell her how to deal with her own trauma? And I think that’s why the book was so effective for me – it opened up an important discussion.
I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a character more than I did Strane – he’s revolting, manipulative and weak, which in a way makes him a very successful abuser. I’ve seen some people say that they didn’t think Vanessa needed to be an outcast for this abuse to happen to her, as it can happen to anyone, which is a fair point. However, I think that Strane capitalises on Vanessa’s loneliness to get closer to her. I wouldn’t say that Vanessa was ‘different’, but she was going through a hard time – in fact, it was Strane who kept telling her that she was different and unique, that both of them were better than the rest, so it created a sort of ‘us vs them’ mentality. It’s not surprising then that Vanessa, who’s young and lonely, would be completely entranced by what he’s saying.
I also think Russell raised some key issues, like how Strane’s assault scandal was handled by Vanessa’s old school Browick and how the media can sometimes use these movements to benefit themselves rather than the survivors. It’s sad to see cases like this still being overlooked by authoritative groups, and it happens far too often.
My Dark Vanessa was a really difficult read at times, and I hated some of the more graphic scenes, so I do understand why some people had to stop reading, as it did make me extremely uncomfortable. I found that I often had to take breaks from reading because it was such a heavy subject, and some chapters are quite long which I think made it all the more intense.
I would definitely warn anyone that this is a mentally challenging and heavy read, so I would absolutely be prepared before. My Dark Vanessa is an intense, raw and eye-opening read, and I’m glad I pushed through and finished it.
“The world is made of endlessly intersecting stories, each one valid and true.” (Ironic that Strane said this, but continues to only see his side of the story…)
“Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’m doing every time I reach out – trying to haunt, to drag him back in time, asking him to tell me again what happened. Make me understand it once and for all. Because I’m still stuck here. I can’t move on.”