My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

A review of the psychological fiction novel My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is the story of Vanessa, who, when she is fifteen, has an affair with her forty-five year old English teacher. Now, years later, amidst the #MeToo movement, the teacher is accused of sexual abuse by another former student. Vanessa is horrified, but as the media circus grows, she is forced to re-examine her past and look again at the event that she has been telling herself was her great love story.

I knew this book would be difficult to read, but I didn’t anticipate exactly how difficult. Russell doesn’t hold back on any front. Everything is agonisingly detailed, but without any salaciousness; every terrible moment feels one hundred percent necessary.

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. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.

The story is told via two timelines, one following Vanessa in the present day, dealing with the fallout of the accusations, and one following Vanessa as a teenager at school, in the throes of her infatuation with her teacher. With consummate skill, Russell paints a detailed study of the emotional turmoil and isolation in which teenage Vanessa finds herself – a situation, I’d wager, which will ring true to many readers recalling their own adolescence. Vanessa is lonely, but the terrible, horrible point that Russell makes with stark bluntness is that Vanessa isn’t special. She has that combination of intellect and ignorance found in so many teenagers, which makes them susceptible to the wiles of anyone with enough calculated determination to break them down and dominate them. The consequences of Vanessa’s case were extreme, but all the ingredients that went into making them are not.

The writing is powerful and intelligent. There were so many lines that rang with emotional truth and honesty. Sometimes that made it excruciating to read because it was so clear that this raw accuracy was born from personal experience. Vanessa’s character is drawn with such piercing detail that it made every moment she experienced feel real and vibrant. Some books are so layered, feel so unfiltered, that reading them is more like recalling one’s own, forgotten memories rather than reading the fictional account of someone else’s. My Dark Vanessa was dark indeed, but one of the realest books I’ve ever read.

It’s not a pleasant read, but it is an astounding one.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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