My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell explores victimhood, child abuse, and the decades of pain that accompany such a toxic relationship. In the novel, 42-year-old Jacob Strane grooms his 15-year-old English student until she is manipulated enough to fall into a decade-long affair with him. In this book review of My Dark Vanessa, I’ll explore the various themes, characters, writing, and my thoughts on this unforgettable novel.
Within one chapter, I was reeled into this story. It was quite clear to the reader that Vanessa was a traumatised victim of her English teacher’s sexual preferences. The novel opens 16 years after their relationship began; Vanessa is now in her 30s, and Strane is still in her life (though mostly via phone calls). She is evidently still in love with him and protects him at all costs, even in the current of the #MeToo movement. But at the same time, Vanessa is obsessively searching a girl online called Taylor Birch, who claims to have been abused by Strane shortly after Vanessa’s relationship with him began.
“I was fifteen, and he was forty-two”
Vanessa describes the age gap between them, on page five, as “near-perfect”, romanticing Strane’s pedophilia — or as she later calls it ephebophilia. The author plays around with language beautifully throughout the novel, using subtle and obvious metaphors to reflect Vanessa’s feelings towards Strane.
There are times when she is so wrapped up in love for him, and other times when she is disgusted by him. The author drops in details about how he smells, how his beard feels, and what medicines are in his bathroom cupboard to let the reader make up their own mind. But we are always brought back into Vanessa’s head and what she is thinking due to the first-person present narrative.
While it’s mostly obvious that the author condemns Vanessa’s idolatry of Jacob Strane and navigates through a frustrating series of parents and teachers doing nothing to help her, there are times when it felt the novel romanticised the relationship a bit too much.
One of my hardships with the novel were the later chapters. Vanessa, in her 30s, is contacted by journalists and other victims of Strane, begging her to tell her story. Still written in first person present, we see Vanessa nearly realise that she, too, was a victim, and then back away. It’s one step forward, two steps back, the entire way through the novel. I lost hope in Vanessa a bit — not because of her personality or who she was, as I know this will happen to so many victims, but just because of the structure of the book. It felt like the same four scenes, circulating over and over again for almost 400 pages: Strane abuses Vanessa, Vanessa excuses it, fast-forward 16 years, and Vanessa realises how he’s ruined her life, Vanessa excuses it, repeat. While this was poignant and interesting the first few cycles, as far as a reading experience goes, it became very exhausting about halfway through the book. I think the entire novel could have been cut 150 pages, and it would have been an easier read. I know quite a few people who had to DNF it, and I don’t blame them (despite the fact I gave this an overall rating of 4.5).
Strane Grooms Vanessa
Besides my criticism, the author did an incredible job (and it’s no easy task!) at showing how a grown man can groom a young girl without the teenager even realising it. I personally don’t have first-hand experience with a situation like this, and from the afterword, neither does the author — but it seems like she did thorough investigative research to portray the story in as accurate a way as possible.
What Strane does was very calculated, and author did great at displaying the power dynamic in a way that also warped the reader’s mind. I could understand Vanessa and how she fell for it: Strane knew exactly what he was doing.
He targeted her because she was vulnerable — and of course, beautiful. But her weakness was something he could work with, play with, manipulate it. He did so by telling her how strong she was, brave, smart, better than others. Being weak, she believed this. She needed to hear this. Her parents didn’t validate her; she had no friends; the other teachers were always getting on her case — Strane was a reprieve for Vanessa, a break from everybody else criticising her.
And when he tested her boundaries by touching her knee, and watching how she didn’t pull away, he edged further and further until he was sure that Vanessa wouldn’t reject him. And then he put the ball in her court. He let her decide what would happen between them. He checked if she was okay with it all. And then, when he had her agree to come to his house and stay over, he abused her. But because he asked her if she was okay — without waiting for a verbal confirmation — Vanessa was confused. Was it rape? No. It can’t be. He loved her.
But as the reader, you can see it clearly for what it was. It was abuse on every level, but because a groomer makes you feel loved, it’s almost impossible for the victim to see that they are just that: a victim.
He Ruins Vanessa’s Life
This continues for months, until something happens (no spoilers) that plants a bit of distance between Strane and Vanessa. We watch her finish high school, go through college, and enter the workforce, her whole world tainted by Strane’s touch. Since we know from the very first page that Vanessa still doesn’t consider herself a victim — but instead fortunate to have been loved so deeply by someone — it’s heartbreaking to watch her. She is depressed, a smoker, a drinker, not writing (when we know she is talented), “wasted potential” as is referenced many times throughout the book.
She is in therapy, though she doesn’t talk about Strane in a negative light, but there is a little hope that she has professional help. But she is so convinced that Strane loved her, that she wasn’t a victim.
One of the first ways that Strane groomed her and defined their relationship was giving her the book Lolita to read. I haven’t personally read the book, but from what I know, the relationship is romanticinsed. The author even admits herself that she used to think it was one of the greatest love stories of all time. As a young girl falling for an older man, Strane gives this book to Vanessa at just the perfect moment, edging her closer to him, showing her what they could have if they just cross that line.
For the rest of the novel, Vanessa views their relationship in the light of Lolita: beautiful, original, and misunderstood by many.
It’s painful to read. But so well-written. I’m in awe of how the author crafted this story. Every page, despite the repetition, was interesting and dark. I was scared reading it: scared of Strane, scared of Vanessa, scared of this terrifying world in which victims are neglected, ignored and often blamed for their circumstances.
Who Should Read This Book?
I’ll be the first to say — this book isn’t for everyone. My Dark Vanessa isn’t the kind of thing I would recommend for a teenage girl to pick up. But who do I think it’s for?
It’s for teachers and educators. Read this and do something about your own school’s sexual harassment policies. There is zero accountability in this book, and I think that’s one of the most significant statements this novel is trying to make. Silence is violence, and we need our teachers to look out for students and notice signs of sexual abuse and predatory behaviour.
It’s for people who need to be educated on what abuse might look like, how victimhood is different for everyone.
It’s for people who might want to support somebody through coming to an understanding about their own trauma.
It’s maybe for people who have been through something similar, and want to relate to somebody who has felt how they felt, need to be seen, but also need a glimmer of hope.
It’s a tough one, reviewing My Dark Vanessa, but it’s a book that will stay with me for a long time. I will probably reread it. I do wish it was a little more cohesive and to-the-point. There is just a little bit too much nuance in it for me to recommend it to everyone. It feels like a bit of a dangerous book.
If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts? I’d love to know.