Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel “My Dark Vanessa” explores how power dynamics and abuse affect Vanessa’s first love, her 42-year-old teacher. Taking inspiration from Nabokov‘s “Lolita,” Russell uses harrowing diction to tell Vanessa’s story, spanning from 2000 to 2017.
At the surface, Vanessa’s story is utterly disturbing: a girl who was both emotionally and sexually abused as a child remains dependent on praise from older men, particularly her abuser, more than 15 years later. But as you read Vanessa’s story, it becomes much more complicated.
Vanessa starts as an impressionable teenager, eager for academic and physical validation. Her English teacher Mr. Strane seems to be the only person at her idyllic Maine boarding school that truly sees her.
“He made me see myself as he did, a girl with the power to rise with red hair and eat him like air,” Vanessa says in page 5 of the novel.*
Strane’s suffocating love makes Vanessa believe she has the power in the relationship, therefore putting her out of harm’s way.
Pushing aside her reservations, she indulges in an all-consuming romance with Strane. Russell shifts between 15 year old Vanessa and present day Vanessa (32 years), exploring how the abuse she faced still affects her life.
But Vanessa, past and present, doesn’t view her relationship with Strane as abusive. Reading Vanessa’s thoughts, you begin to understand how complex the relationship is, how the obvious age difference changes the psychological power dynamic. Even as Strane’s actions hurt Vanessa, she fiends for his attention, knowing that regardless of what attention she is receiving, at least it is hers.
“I try to hide how happy this makes me feel by rolling my eyes, but his words break my chest wide open and leave me helpless. There’s nothing stopping him from reaching in and grabbing whatever he wants. I’m special. I’m special. I’m special,” Vanessa says on page 125.
In the midst of the #MeToo Movement which gained mainstream attention in 2017, allegations regarding Strane are released by Vanessa’s former classmate. The ongoing and public discussions regarding abuse give a space for Vanessa to reflect on the nuances of her experiences that she previously neglected.
“‘I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long … I just really need it to be a love story,'” Vanessa says on page 319.
“My Dark Vanessa” will leave you stranded, questioning your definition of love, abuse, and trauma. Russell’s haunting words are one hundred percent worth the read, but be sure to check trigger warnings first.
*Quote is a reference to poet Sylvia Plath’s well-recognized piece “Lady Lazarus.” This poem is later gifted to Vanessa by Mr. Strane.