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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell — book review

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“I think we’re very similar, Nessa,” he whispers. “From the way you write, I can tell you’re a dark romantic like me. You like dark things.”

Recently I read a nonfiction book which claimed that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. When I read those words I found them vaguely equivocal…case in point, in My Dark Vanessa the misreading of a novel has disastrous consequences.
When fifteen year old Vanessa is given a copy of Lolita by her forty-five year old teacher, Jacob Strane, she becomes obsessed with it and comes to regard it as a tragic love story. In her eyes Humbert Humbert is not a degenerate pedophile but an unlucky man who happens to fall in love with a twelve-year old girl.

“That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes.”

Short review
On the one hand I believe that this novel presents its readers with a horrifyingly realistic character study of a sexual predator (a pedophile, a rapist, a molester). It tells an uneasy story, one in which a man creeps his way into the mind and life of a vulnerable young girl, that is bound to make some readers uncomfortable.
On the other, I found the narrator’s introspection to be monotonous, and the secondary characters are mere plot devices.
Although Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing could be striking, she sometimes resorts to edgy observations which are a bit cringe-y. Some of her descriptions were trying (eg: “dishwater blonde hair and granola clothes”) and I was frustrated by the blatant yet limited way in which she would convey Vanessa’s distress (she bites her cheeks a lot).
There are some great discussions in here (on abuse, guilt, desire, power, literature) and while this is ultimately a story of an uneasy self-reconciliation, it is one that is as uplifting as a work Joyce Carol Oates (ie: pretty fucking depressing).

An extremely meandering and longwinded review
Narrated by Vanessa, Russell’s novel opens up in 2017 when the #MeToo movement became viral. Vanessa, a disillusioned thirty-something concierge, is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to Strane after one of his former students, Taylor Birch, writes a Facebook post accusing him of assault. Although Vanessa is still in touch with Strane, the two are no longer ‘involved’, and she thinks that Taylor is lying. Yet, even as she tells herself this, there is a niggling doubt at the back of her mind. When Taylor messages her asking her to share her own experience with Strane, Vanessa is compelled to comb through her memories of her relationship with Strane.
Vanessa regards her relationship to Strane as a consensual love story hindered by an age-gap. The only reason why she entertains the possibility of it having unethical is because he was her teacher. Yet, when Vanessa revisits her past, she is not always able to romanticise Strane and his actions.

“I know what he thinks, what anyone would think. That I’m an apologist, an enabler, but I’m defending myself just as much as I am Strane. Because even if sometimes I use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth, the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.”

In 2000 fifteen-year old Vanessa returns to her second year at Browick, a private school in Norumbega, Maine (although according to Google this town does not exist, Russell’s vivid depiction of this fictional place makes it seem all too real). Vanessa is all too aware of her distinctive red hair, of her lack of friends, and of her penchant for morose observations.
It isn’t all surprising then that Vanessa initially ‘responds’ positively to Strane’s attentions. He compliments her appearance and her writing, and soon enough Vanessa comes to believe that he is attentive because he thinks that she is “special”.

In spite of the superficial charm that Strane uses in order to make his abhorrent actions appear ‘darkly romantic’ readers are aware of his true nature. He is a perverted manipulator who masks his inclination for young girls under the guise of being a hopeless romantic, as if he is a blameless victim of love. He instills in Vanessa his own skewed perception of their relationship, he uses her own insecurity against her, and makes her feel complicit. He makes her believe that it is ‘them’ against the world.
What becomes apparent through Vanessa’s recollection is that Strane would use any means necessary in order to gain her trust. For instance he uses Vanessa’s poetry against her as he attributes to her poems mature and inappropriate meanings (for instance he calls one of her poems “sexy”…) making her once again feel ‘seen’ (something he knows she craves).
Strane also implements Lolita in order to introduce to Vanessa the possibility of an adult-child ‘relationship’, and while he often compares Vanessa to Lolita, as the self-denying hypocrite that he is, he refuses to cast himself as Humbert (“Is that what you think I am?” He asks. “A pedophile?”).

The novel does a terrific job in portraying the power-imbalance between a grown man and a teenager girl. Strane uses his age and experience to manipulate Vanessa, often leading her to believe that she is the “boss”. His disgusting behaviour is rendered in minute detail as the author does not shy away from portraying him at his most repugnant.
Rather than ‘empowering’ Vanessa however he is disenfranchising her. He convinces her that she is ‘precocious’ and far more mature and independent that other girls.

“Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.”

While we are made to see how Strane manages to convince Vanessa that they are mutually complicit, two ‘dark romantics’, his charm never reached me. Everything he says and does felt wrong and illicit. While Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert admits to himself that he likes little girls, Strane seems to actually believe that he has fallen in love with Vanessa not because of her age but in spite of it. Yet, as present-Vanessa grudgingly realises, he would find it arousing to infantilise her and his attraction for her diminishes as she grows ‘older’.

“Like I was crazy. A stupid, crazy little girl. I get why you did that. It was an easy way to protect yourself, right? Teenage girls are crazy. Everyone knows that.”

While I think that this novel does an exceptional job at depicting Vanessa’s horrifying story of abuse (she would dislike my using this word but I call it what it is) I did not feel incredibly affected by it and for the most part I was simply disgusted.
Strane was the only character who struck me as believable…and he was a monster. Vanessa however remains more blurred. While this is likely to be somewhat intentional (the trauma caused by Strane has had horrific repercussions on her life and her sense of self) it also made it harder for me to believe in her as a character. Her dissociation and alienation are a result of her ‘relationship’ with Strane and his presence in her life is toxic , that much is clear. Still, she often makes out-of-character choices or big decisions without any distinct reason. There are two instances were she makes potentially life-changing decisions without articulating the reason behind her actions. Much was made of her ‘darkness’ but I could only see it as a consequence of Strane’s gaslighting her. Part of me wished that we could have seen her before him, perhaps during her first year at Browick. That way we could have gotten to know her on her own terms, and not as Strane’s victim (not that Vanessa labels herself as victim or survivor, in fact she hates these terms: “But that word, with its cloying empathy, that patronizing, flattening word that makes my whole body cringe no matter the context”).

There were moments when more could have been made of her personality. Yes, she has been manipulated into assuming the role of ‘Lolita’, but she could still have had traces of her own distinctive personality. Her job sadly seems merely to recount in an almost detached way Strane’s repulsive actions towards her. And if she is totally disconnected from her own self then I wish we could have been at least made privy to what she was thinking when she makes those potentially life-altering impulsive decisions (usually she just describes her movements or surroundings in these instances).
There are many other characters but they all blurred together. Once again this may be deliberate, given that Vanessa herself knows that she struggles keeping people straight in her mind. However, even during those scenes set in her past, I found that the characters to be lacking: there were a few named J-something and I could barely distinguish them from one another. Most of them seem to have been included only to say or do something to hurt Vanessa. Their motivations were sketchy and given that their personalities remain off-page, I had difficulties believing them.
Vanessa’s parents are incongruously depicted. Her mother seems to undergo three or four changes of character in the course of the novel. The father is totally expendable. Maybe if they had more page-time, we could have seen glimpses of their personalities/thoughts/motivations (we never know how they felt about their daughter’s time at Browick). Even in the few scenes where they actually appear, they remain vague un-active presences.

“So if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak, selfish?”

While I appreciated the way the novel unflinchingly discusses sexual and emotional abuse, its praise and critique of certain aspects of the #MeToo movement, as well as its incorporation of texts (Lolita and Ethan Frome) and historical figures/anecdotes (which Strane used to normalise or romanticise ‘relationships’ between under age girls and middle aged men), I found that much of the narrative relied on explicit content. The first few times, as I already mentioned, I thought that however revolting these scenes were necessary. Needless to say, these scenes were not easy to read. Strane eroticises his fifteen-yearl old student and makes Vanessa believe that, like Lolita, she is ‘precociously seductive’. Although Vanessa tells herself that she enjoys this feeling of making a grown man sexually desire her, readers will have a less rose-tinted view of things. While their first encounters are graphic, I did not see these as being included for shock value. However, as these scenes increased, I found their frequency almost distasteful. To be repeatedly exposed to them seemed unnecessary. If anything they made the first explicit scenes less impactful.
Sometimes keeping certain things off the page isn’t a sign of ‘cowardice’ or ‘sensibleness’. If anything it requires even more effort to make your audience aware of certain ‘transgressions’ without having to actually to include them. For instance, in a recent episode of one of my favourite tv shows, a character is forced into the realisation that he was abused as a child. Rather than cutting to a tasteless flashback of this, the camera remains trained on his face, and viewers can see the incalculable hurt that this abuse caused him. His trauma, anguish, and despair are conveyed without the episode having to actually show this abuse happening.
Another example I can give is by the great Stephen King (who happens to have appreciated My Dark Vanessa more than I did, given that he described it as a ‘package of dynamite’) who in his latest novel avoids depicting in horrific detail a scene in which a child is tortured, cutting instead to the before and the after. Even if he doesn’t include e the ‘during’ scene, his readers can clearly see the harmful effects that this maltreatment has had on the child in question.

Sadly, I found that once I was 30% into My Dark Vanessa the graphic scenes lost some of their significance. They were so lurid that I could not see why there had to be so many of them. I get that some were meant to show us why present-Vanessa has such as distorted perception of her sexuality but when a story relies on numerous revolting sex scenes…I loose interest. I don’t think ‘splatter’ films are good horror films, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I wasn’t all that impressed with My Dark Vanessa.

Additionally this year I read two other books that deal with similar topics. What Red Was is a stark novel that depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. I found that novel poignant and heart-wrenching. Promising Young Women instead tells an imaginative and subversive story of a relationship between a female employee and her boss. Those two novels resonated with me a lot more than My Dark Vanessa did. In Russell’s novel, the only character that was truly believable happens to be one of the most disgustingly perverse characters I’ve read of in a while. For all her self-fashioning, Vanessa did not strike me as ‘dark’ or even ‘precocious’. For the most part she is passive and apathetic towards other people. In one scene she willingly stands by as one of her young colleagues is harassed by a patron. In those instances where she is spurred into action, I still could not understand her or her motivations. More could have been made of her inner monologue, her sense of loneliness/emptiness, and of her fraught relationship with her mother.
The novel takes its time discussing the guilt she feels, and by the end I just wanted this novel to end.

“But it’s the truth, even if no one believes it. Driven towards it, towards him, I was the kind of girl that isn’t supposed to exist: eager to hurl herself into the swamp.”

Nevertheless, future readers should not be deterred by my not so positive review. So far, most of the reviews are singing this book’s praises. Heck, even King liked it…so maybe I’m just not the right reader for it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

View all my reviews

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