A review of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa
By Bou Laam Wong
If someone were to ask me how I’d describe Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, I would say it’s another example of a tragic tale about a young girl’s loss of innocence told through the voice of her rapist. There are plenty of stories about a woman’s voice being taken away from her, her voice to give consent, her voice to recount her own trauma. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa is a novel that finally gives women the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
As the narrative jumps between 2000, 2007 and 2017, the reader watches 15-year-old Vanessa engage in an affair with her middle-aged teacher Jacob Strane and grow up to be a young woman during the rise of the Me Too movement. When a former student of Strane comes forward about being sexually abused by him as a minor, Vanessa is forced to re-evaluate their past relationship and to accept what she’s been denying for so long.
Considering the novel’s topic, it’s interesting to point out that the novel’s publication date coincides with the month that Harvey Weinstein was finally convicted in court for the crime of rape. The accusations against him that surfaced in 2017 propelled the Me Too movement forward, the movement that provides the social context of this novel.
Just like the opening line of Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice captures the economics of marriage in that time, My Dark Vanessa is a product of Russell’s understanding that in our current society, it is a truth universally acknowledged that young girls grow up thinking their bodies are destined for violence. An adult Vanessa muses: “Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really, though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable.” Although we like to point fingers at the rapists that hurt these girls, the novel makes it clear to us that society has also played a part by grooming girls into believing sexual violence is an intrinsic part of womanhood.
One of the many ways Russell broadens our understanding of the subject of rape is by looking at the idea of victimhood and how media representation influences this. In the age of internet and social media, sympathy for victims can be easily found online but it also makes them more vulnerable to judgment. The women who were once abused are again subjected to a predatory gaze; this time that of the media, used for attention-grabbing headlines and clickbait titles. Vanessa has been refusing to identify herself as a victim but it hasn’t made her less vulnerable to the horrors of her past.
Where do we draw the line? When is something acceptable or predatory? We see the media depicting older men dating much younger women so often that it makes one wonder whether it’s possible for someone to be emotionally mature beyond their physical body. Or does one think this only as a result of the conditioning of a society that’s been sexualising young girls and forcing them to become women before they are mature? Strane tells Vanessa she’s not like other girls because she has a woman’s body, but outside the context of his bed, he’s perfectly aware that she’s still a child. The border between rape and not-rape is a painful grey area that needs to be interrogated in order to reset boundaries, as emphasised by Russell.
It’s no surprise that a novel discussing the serious topic of rape has attracted some controversy. Russell has been accused of romanticising predatory relationships and writing gratuitous sex scenes. However, the romanticisation is a narrative technique that shows us how easily susceptible teens are to the fantasy of romance in the face of abuse. As for the descriptions of the sex scenes, I don’t think they were there just for shock. Every sexual encounter described in the book highlights different issues concerning the politics of sexual assault, like “underage consent.”
Amid the strangeness of puberty, Strane offers Vanessa something she believes only he can give, a sense of belonging. Whereas an older Vanessa confesses: “I just really need it to be a love story, you know? I really, really need it to be that… Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it? It’s my life. This has been my whole life.” This emphasises how problematic the term “underage consent” is. Underage consent is an illusion because children can’t give consent to things they don’t fully understand yet. A minor consenting to a sexual relationship with an adult under the guise of romance is therefore always going to be rape.
Russell has cleverly crafted a tale about unclear boundaries that will certainly provoke a discussion. I wish that such discussions could be normalised in order to educate ourselves and I’m thankful to Russell for reminding me of that. I’d say it was very bold and ambitious of her to publish something like My Dark Vanessa as a debut novel considering its heavy subject matter. I nevertheless think the novel was excellent and sets an interesting precedent for her future work.
The novel has left its tether hooks gripping into my brain even long after I finished it. Yes, the subject matter is uncomfortable, but no matter how well-written a book is on such a sensitive topic, I believe it always has to make your skin crawl because you can never feign indifference to a girl who can’t differentiate rape from lovemaking. We, as readers, are lucky to be capable of saying goodbye to the story as we close the cover of the book, but out there in the real world, some girl really is being preyed upon. It is the quiet horror of reality that makes fictious stories of abuse truly as haunting as Russell’s My Dark Vanessa.
Bou Laam is one of RevUU’s editors. Within literature, she’s interested in diversity, wanting to read and publish stories that haven’t had the attention they deserve. As a new critical voice, she wants to experiment with different styles and topics, staying as open as possible.
Author image by Lee Russell
Russell, Kate Elizabeth. My Dark Vanessa. William Morrow, 2020.