4th Books Estate March 2020
Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when
she first had sex with her English teacher.
She is now thirty-two and the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student of his. Vanessa is horrified by the news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that. But now, in 2017, in the midst of allegations against powerful men, she is being asked to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape.
Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, and as riveting as it is disturbing, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues of our age.
Firstly special thanks to Olivia Marsden at 4th Estate Books for inviting me to their incredible showcase event where I was lucky enough to hear author Kate Elizabeth Russell speak and pick up a proof of her debut fiction – My Dark Vanessa. You can read about the 4th Estate Event here. Despite the publication date being scheduled for March 2020 (pushed back from February) this book has been creating a real buzz on social media and has been a highly anticipated read of mine for some time.
And despite all the hype, this book totally lived up to all expectations for me. Exploring a teacher pupil relationship told in the present day and from 2000 when Vanessa moves to the exclusive boarding school where she meets Jacob Strane. Told in the first person voice of Vanessa this fictional story feels very authentic and real. There are aspects of this story that are difficult to read, disturbing and some of the sexual descriptions could be considered graphic. But I believe this is necessary to capture the voice of the 15 year Vanessa as she embarks on what she considers to be a major love affair.
This story is extremely sensitively written and the author recognises the complexities of situations like this. What is clear is the power imbalance between teacher and pupil which makes this type of relationship problematic and at risk of abuse, regardless of age. What reads as more complex is Vanessa’s view of herself as a consenting equal in the relationship with Jacob. She is forced to question her position as she considers the possibility of other girls similar to herself and this raised questions about the uniqueness of her and the obvious question of paedophilia.
As for Jacob, well he was a well created character and not repulsive – for me he was a charismatic English Teacher who captivated and was captivated by Vanessa. But without spoiling anything there were aspects of this story that were difficult to read. The grooming process was cleverly documented and the subtle manipulations were very well scripted.
For me this book was incredible. Hard to put down and so well written. Thought provoking throughout and widely exploring situations where women come forward to speak out about sexual abuse against men in power, in positions of authority and in respected roles. The struggle to be believed and the reaction of the institution – in this case the school, but which seems in all situations to adopt an initial response to disbelieve the victim, to brush under the carpet and hope a difficult situation will go away. The sexuality of girls is a theme throughout and the book Lolita is referenced lots.
A definite to add to your 2020 reading list and a book I am expecting to hear a lot more about next year.
About the Author
Kate Elizabeth Russell was born and raised in eastern Maine. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kansas and an MFA from Indiana University. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review and Quarterly West, among other literary journals, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. This is her first novel.