A fiery red headed teenager is victimized by an adult male she idolizes. We’ve heard it all before. We’ve seen it in the news. We’ve read Lolita. So, what sets My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, apart?
The answer: Timing. The novel goes back to the late 90s, when Vanessa meets her abuser and favorite teacher Jacob Strane, to the now; meaning after the #metoo movement changed the way we talk about sexual harassment and rape culture forever. What we have in Vanessa is someone who does not see herself as a victim, but a willing participant who consented to years of rape, manipulation, and abuse. This consent is not possible for any child, which our protagonist is unable to accept well into her adult years. The impact of this abuse has led to derailed dreams, difficultly with relationships, and drug use. How different Vanessa’s life would have been had she had the support of her parents, those teachers who knew something was off and did nothing, and yes, US? Even today, we see old footage and are outraged by the abusive treatment of women of pop 90s culture such as Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and Lindsay Lohan. And Vanessa was no different. We just didn’t see it, or want to. Easier to humiliate, ignore, look the other way, right?
Adult Vanessa is made to feel even worse by other victims of Strane and journalists pushing for a story and don’t understand why she won’t come forward. And this is an important piece. Because every time someone tells a victim they are brave and strong, and they are, we must also be cognizant of the terrified, silent victim who isn’t coming forward and has been made to feel they are the very opposite of those speaking out.
My Dark Vanessa is not an easy read. Nor should it be. And we need to talk about it, however uncomfortable it may make us. Because guess what? The abuse we don’t want to talk about? It happened yesterday. And it happened again today. And it’ll happen tomorrow. The signs are everywhere.
I saw this listed as a “romance” novel. No. Honey, this is horror.
Rating: 4/5 stars ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
Adult Vanessa: Jessica Chastain
Jacob Strane: Jon Hamm
Young Vanessa: Millie Bobby Brown
Henry Plough: Idris Elba