My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Updated: Apr 11
‘There must be a point where you’re allowed to be defined by something other than what he did to you'
How does an abusive relationship begin? Is it possible to pinpoint the precise moment the line is irrevocably crossed? If an underage victim rejects their victimhood and believes themselves in love, is their agency entirely negated by their age?
Kate Elizabeth Russell explores these complex questions and many more in her nuanced and thought-provoking portrait of a teacher-pupil relationship. Before My Dark Vanessa was even published, it had acquired a whiff of scandal. Assertions of cultural appropriation and near-plagiarism were made on Twitter by Wendy C. Ortiz, a Latinx writer whose memoir of a five-year relationship with her English teacher, Excavation, was published in 2014. In the wake of the ensuing social media storm (amplified by the brouhaha over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt), Kate Elizabeth Russell came out and said her novel was based on her own adolescent experiences.
This comes as no surprise, for the story – narrated in the first-person using a dual timeframe – feels startlingly real. Fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Vanessa is so thoroughly groomed by her forty-two-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane that her loyalty remains intact until after his death seventeen years later – although in private her feelings oscillate from attraction to repulsion, justification to blame, love to hate.
‘I still feel torn in two when he pushes inside, will probably always feel this way, but I want it. I have to.’
Yet Vanessa can’t bear to abandon the position she occupied aged fifteen – that of his silent defender. The novel opens in 2017 during the tidal wave of #MeToo revelations, as another of Strane’s former students goes public with her abuse experience, and a journalist starts harassing Vanessa to share her story. At thirty-two, Vanessa’s life has stalled in a post-college hinterland. Living in squalid isolation, she’s a hotel concierge who relies on alcohol and pot to get through the day. Her relationships invariably founder when men realise how damaged she is. She knows she’s a mess, but she’s paralysed by the past that has come to define her.
The novel illuminates the psychology of abuse with remarkable clarity and feeling. Through Vanessa, we understand how a lonely schoolgirl is drawn to an older man who makes her feel special. We see him convince her that she’s the initiator while he's a helpless worshipper, in thrall to her beauty – casting himself in the victim role. We learn that their physical disparity is, counterintuitively, integral to their erotic connection.
‘He’s always going to be old. He has to be. That’s the only way I can stay young and dripping with beauty’
We seek out narratives that echo our own. Strane is an influential teacher who nurtures Vanessa’s poetic talent (how calculatedly it’s unclear) and introduces her to writers from Plath to Nabokov. Vanessa seizes on Lolita, identifying parallels with their relationship – at which Strane balks: Vanessa’s older than a nymphet, he’s no Humbert Humbert. This is typical of his affected moral scruples; he appears fastidious about consent, yet there are troubling rape scenes in which Vanessa’s traumatised mind detaches from reality and watches from afar.
‘I see my body from above, ant-small, pale limbs floating on the lake, the water now past my ears. It laps at my cheeks, almost to my mouth, almost drowning. Beneath me are monsters, leeches and eels, toothy fish, turtles with jaws strong enough to snap an ankle. He keeps going’
This menacing, gothic lake imagery haunts the novel, evoking Millais’ painting of the drowning Ophelia. Flame-haired and self-consciously tragic, Vanessa has something of the Pre-Raphaelite muse. ‘The more I drink, the further I drift from the anger I came with. My rage is left onshore while I’m pulled into deep water, floating on my back, little waves lapping against my ears.’ She’s deluded in some ways, but playfully allusive and narcissistic in others, only owning movies that retell her story (Pretty Baby, Lolita, Lost in Translation), and sending stills of Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides to older men she meets in chatrooms. She keeps an anonymous blog that’s read by Jacob Strane and Henry Plough (her college professor with whom a charged relationship develops) – and that the journalist threatens to quote in her exposé. That’s the thing: once you’ve told your truth, it follows you forever.
Unflinching, uncomfortable, often chilling, My Dark Vanessa reveals the devastating psychological fallout of abuse. Vanessa feels complicit in her own and that of other girls. As though Strane’s left part of himself inside her, she can’t keep her eyes off teenage girls. She doesn’t want to share her story to help other women because she believes hers is different: a love story. We know Vanessa is an unreliable narrator with a distorted perspective. Both Jacob Strane and Henry Plough accuse her of coming on too strong. Is this true, or an excuse for their own behaviour? If it is true, does it shift the blame at all?
Kate Elizabeth Russell has written a layered, intelligent, absorbing debut that deserves plaudits for its psychological insights and literary merits – striking imagery, lyricism, a sophisticated structure that keeps us guessing. In my view, the author certainly achieves her aim: to ‘spark conversation about the complexity of coercion, trauma, and victimhood, because while these stories can feel all too familiar, victims are not a monolith and there is no universal experience of sexual violence'.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was published by Fourth Estate on 10th March 2020. If you've read it, tell us what you thought at @amoveablefeastlondon.