Tuesday, 13 April 2021

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell @4thEstateBooks @audibleuk #MyDarkVanessa #KateElizabethRussell #BookReview

Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when she first had sex with her English teacher.

She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.

Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn't abuse. It was love. She's sure of that.

Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.

Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues of our age. 

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was published in hardback by Fourth Estate on 31 March 2020. The paperback was released in January 2021. I listed to the audio version of this book, purchased via Audible and narrated by Grace Gummer.

I don't listen to many audio books, not because I don't enjoy the experience, but because I find my mind drifts off too easily. It has taken me many weeks to listen to My Dark Vanessa, but to be honest, I think the gaps between my bouts of listening did me good. It's dark, and upsetting and not easy to listen to at times. However, I thought it was brilliantly done, the narration was perfect. Vanessa's voice was executed brilliantly by Grace Gummer; with a coldness at times that exactly matched Vanessa's mood.

When Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old, she had sex with her English teacher. Jacob Strane was then in his thirties; a well respected teacher from a well known, high performing school. Vanessa was a virgin. She was in love.

When a girl is fifteen years old, she thinks she knows everything, about everything. When a handsome, older man who is intelligent and well-read takes notice of that girl, and pays her compliments, and takes an interest in her. That girl will believe it is love. Especially if the man tells her so.

We know that it isn't love. We know that this is abuse, and despite how much Vanessa tells herself that it's OK, it really really isn't. Strane groomed Vanessa and as she tells her story, in the now, aged thirty-two, and also in the past, when she was a schoolgirl, the listener realises just how Strane groomed her, and continued to control her throughout her adult years.

As Vanessa tries to deal with the fall out from recent revelations from more of Stranes ex pupils, she continues to make excuses for him. It becomes clear that Vanessa was not the only girl that he abused, but still she feels special, because she had an 'affair' with him. She wasn't just touched inappropriately, she was 'loved'.

Vanessa is such a damaged woman. Her continued behaviour, including dangerous sex, and addictions stem from her feelings about what happened to her. She was let down by every adult who could have protected her; Strane, her parents, other teachers. Each and every one of them felt able to blame Vanessa and brush things under the carpet, and forget that they happened. 

This is a story that burns itself onto your brain. Vanessa's voice is desperate to be heard, yet at the same time, she wants to stay quiet. My feelings went from sadness, to pity to pure anger at times. 

My Dark Vanessa is a story that I will not forget. Sadly, it is the story of many women and girls, and a sad sad reflection on our times.  Powerful and chilling. So dark. 

Kate Elizabeth Russell is originally from eastern Maine. 

She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Kansas and an MFA from Indiana University. 

My Dark Vanessa is her first novel.

photo by Elena Seibert

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