Vanessa Kate Elizabeth Russell Darkness
4 mins read

Vanessa Kate Elizabeth Russell Darkness

Only after talking with my friend Faroukh about the bookstagram account The Guy with the Book, I heard about my dark Vanessa from Kate Elizabeth Russell. We were discussing the anger around American Dirt, and he compared it to the debate that took place before Russell’s first book – something that had completely bypassed me. I didn’t read the riot online and instead decided to wait until I got my hands on a copy before reading the various features about it.

A few days after talking with Faroukh, I went to the Harper Collins Literary Bites event, where the editor Catherine Milne spoke passionately about Russell’s early life. I managed to convince Catherine to look for evidence for me, and I started the book the same evening.

Since the book focuses on the relationship between a student and her teacher – there were, of course, comparisons between My Dark Vanessa and Lolita– a book plays an important role in the novel. It also reminded me of Sofka Zenovieff’s Putney and Lisa Tadeo’s three wives – both of whom I adored – both in their subject matter and their compulsively readable but disturbing nature.

The period in the book alternates between 2000 and 2017; the first takes place during Vanessa’s school years, when she is treated and raped by her teacher Jacob Strane, and then almost two decades after, when a classmate accuses Strane of abusing her. We see the repercussions she faces as a mature as she continues to see the relationship as consensual; and we are experiencing the confusion she carries as a child as she tries to cope with the complications, insecurities and humiliations that manifest as a direct result of her involvement with Strane. The tender and heavy nature of adolescence is brilliantly depicted, and the plot is both pacy and tense.

My Dark Vanessa is a compelling, complex and unpleasant read and a powerful and thought-provoking debut that fully deserves the expected hype around its upcoming release.

About My Dark Vanessa

To explore the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious but naive teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming reading that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye is brilliant, ambitious and striving for mature-hood, getting involved in an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old magnetic and naive English teacher.

2017. Amid the growing wave of accusations against powerful men, a verdict is ripening. Strane has been accused of venereal mis-word by a former student who turns to Vanessa, and now Vanessa is suddenly faced with an impossible choice: to remain silent, firmly convinced that her teenager has voluntarily committed to this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa refuse her first love, the man who fundamentally changed her and was a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who claimed to worship only her—was completely different from what she has always believed?

My Dark Vanessa alternates between Vanessa’s present and past, juxtaposing memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenager discovering the power that her own body can exert. Thought-provoking and impossible to suppress, this is a masterful portrait of troubled youth and its repercussions, raising important questions about free will, consent, complicity and victimization. Written with the haunting intimacy of the girls and the rampant intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is a groundbreaking novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the changing cultural mores that are changing our relationships and society itself.

About Kate Elizabeth Russel

Kate Elizabeth Russell was born and raised in eastern Maine. She holds a Master of fine arts from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas. My Dark Vanessa is her first novel.

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