Before I begin, I let me just preface this review by saying this is a heavy read. It is likely not for everyone and makes the reader uncomfortable.
My Dark Vanessa puts the reader in the mind of Vanessa Wye, a thirty-two year old woman who had an affair with her high school English teacher, Jacob Strane, when she was 15. The story alternates between 2000, when the affair began, and 2017, when Strane is accused of abuse by numerous former students. As a reckoning ensues around the world, Vanessa wants no part of a victim narrative, claiming she consented to her affair with Strane. The novel explores the mental gymnastics Vanessa goes through as she combats what others tell her happened to her – grooming and manipulation generally, sexual abuse specifically. Vanessa, an unreliable narrator, rejects the victim label and questions the truth of the other women’s allegations. The reading experience is deeply uncomfortable, but is thought-provoking at its core.
A mediation on trauma, complicity, and victimhood, this story is important in considering why women may resist telling their story publicly, the questions we ask ourselves when we feel pressured to succumb to a narrative we reject, and how schools should handle allegations of sexual abuse. This story has an interesting relationship to the press as reporters feel pressuring and combative, which I think is because we’re hearing the story from Vanessa’s perspective. It begs the question: how do we create an environment where survivors feel comfortable speaking if they want to without shaming them if they choose to confront their trauma quietly? I’m reading She Said soon, and I think it’ll be an interesting foil to this read! Finally, because of the setting in which Vanessa and Strane’s relationship began, this story highlights what a school should not do when addressing sexual abuse allegations (that is, protect the school’s reputation at all costs).
Kate Elizabeth Russell handles this story with immense care and is a talented writer who offers beautiful prose even when the subject matter is challenging.