Before I talk about this book I am going to issue some serious trigger warnings. That’s not something I usually do for my reviews, but I feel like it’s so important for this review, especially for those who might not be familiar with the content and story of My Dark Vanessa.
Trigger warnings throughout my review for: rape, child (teenager) abuse, child (teenager) sexual abuse, rape of a child (teenager), grooming.
Right, My Dark Vanessa is an incredibly difficult read, but it is such an important read.
Oh. My. GOD! This book made me feel ALL the emotions! DO NOT go into this book if you don’t wanna be mad. And I mean seriously angry, tears-at-the-back-of-your-eyes kind of mad.
But this book is outstanding. It made me angry, uncomfortable, and empathetic.
Here’s a brief blurb for those who may not know what the book is about – I need to use the blurb as I might accidently step into spoiler territory if I try to do my own summary:
“Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood.”
The writing throughout the entire book is raw and powerful and Kate Elizabeth Russell is an absolute POWERHOUSE in masterful storytelling. As she takes us through the repercussions of the events between 2000 and 2017 as we see how the young teenage school girl Vanessa is groomed and then raped several times across a time period by her teacher Mr Strane. The 2017 aspects of the book deal with how Vanessa comes to struggle with the memories of the relationship that she thought was romantic, but was in fact incredibly abusive.
The inner struggle of Vanessa is shown incredibly well, especially with how it shifts over time. the author does a good job of showing Vanessa’s struggle to face what she experienced. The writing is claustrophobic at times, where I both wanted to put it down in order to breathe, yet I didn’t want to put it down at all!
However I will say that there are some pacing issues. The first half of the book moves swiftly without ever leaving the reader in the dark, but the book drags on in the second half when it could have been so much stronger for being 100 pages fewer. However none of the content ever felt unnecessary, gratuitous, fluffed, or ‘for the sake of it’, it just felt unnecessarily drawn out in the second half. Yet I still rated it 5 stars on Goodreads despite the pacing issues.
Another testament to the novel/story was the apparent lack of any ‘real’ trauma in Vanessa’s life prior to her rape (I’m going to call it that because as far as I’m concerned even if a teenager says they want sex, to act on that is rape until they are of the age of consent in their country). And what I mean by that is that often in stories I’ve read that deal with similar subject matter, the victims have some previous trauma that is used as an explanation for their willingness to accept their abuse. With Vanessa there’s nothing disclosed in her background that paints her as a victim. Instead, she’s a typical teenager: insecure, trying to find herself, perhaps a little self-centred at times. And for me, that’s the point. That’s the true horror. She’s a Jane Doe and could be any other young teenager that anyone could know.
My Dark Vanessa is an extremely uncomfortable read – and it should be! I don’t think anyone should be able to read this without feeling anger, disgust, fear, or some form of upset. My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and, like the title says, dark.
I am floored by this book and I recommend it to everyone who feels like they are able to read it without suffering any triggers.
Kate Elizabeth Russell has blown me away with this debut and has become an autobuy author for me from this book alone.
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