Victoria’s Book Reviews: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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It is quite the dream for a debut novelist to get a significant six-figure sum for their first book so this one has turned lots of heads already. It is already on 2020 Must Read lists left, right and centre, which is not surprising given that it is one of the most pressing topics of our time – abuse of girls and the #MeToo movement. A huge subject and a, clearly, brilliant book but, I warn you now, it is a hard book to read.

And I don’t mean that as any slight on Kate, the author. Quite the opposite; My Dark Vanessa is a remarkable piece of writing. On what should be already quite familiar ground, Kate has created an exceptional fictional character – Vanessa – and captures in riveting, agonising yet powerfully insightful prose the battles Vanessa has (internally and externally) with the legacy of her sexual relationship with her English schoolteacher that started when she was fifteen years old.

What Vanessa thought was accidental, understandable, logical and consensual is framed as something far darker as, ten years on, other girls from the school she used to attend come forward to accuse the same teacher of abuse.

I’ve had the privilege of reading this book already. By the end, I was blown away but, for much of the first section of the book, as we meet the older Vanessa, an isolated figure, I felt I had read this book before somewhere. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but then I realised, this is very similar ground to that covered in Lisa Taddeo’s seminal Three Women, that examined the sexual lives of three real women, one of which was abused by her teacher.

It was gut-wrenching to read that truthful account and I wondered, going back to My Dark Vanessa, whether following a fictional character in exactly the same setting was worthwhile.

Well, any doubts I had were thoroughly scrubbed out as Vanessa’s battles play out in unexpected ways. Unwilling to have what she considers to be the love of her life framed as an exploiter, this becomes an importantly complex analysis of power and emerging female sexuality as much as grooming and, yes, abuse.

It’s hard to think that any fictional work on this subject could be as nuanced as this. Impressive, to say the least. Risky, of course, to refuse to entertain too much of the victim/survivor narrative but, in Vanessa, we have a critical character in a first-class novel on an era-defining subject.

 

My Dark Vanessa is published by Fourth Estate; hardback RRP £12.99.

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