a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: fiction

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

*trigger warning for sexual abuse

SO I’m still in that phase of “I don’t know what to do with this site.” I’ve done something with it, but I’m not yet happy with what I’ve done. However, I did read this book recently and it has certainly been difficult to get my mind off it. So I thought why not go to the tried and tested basics and write a good ol’ review. I’ve been reading some interesting books this year and this tops the list of thought-provoking writing.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is the story of a woman in her thirties, named Vanessa, who discovers that one of her old teachers has been accused in a #MeToo scandal. Soon, we learn that Vanessa had an affair with the very same teacher. In fact, she had been in love with him. The story unfolds through her fifteen year old perspective. Meanwhile, in the future, the woman comes to terms with years of relationship mishaps, and the idea that her very first love was, in fact, sexual abuse.

It’s a controversial topic and it can be a trigger for many. So let’s start with what this book is not and who shouldn’t read it. It is not a love story. You are supposed to see the power play and the emotional abuse for what it is. This fifteen year old girl does glorify her romance with a teacher twice her age. She is obsessed with him, and she lets him convince her that what she feels is in fact love, and that love warrants sacrifice. Although it conveys teenage emotions – rather, because it conveys that young adult perspective so well – it’s not a book for teens. Strangely, the author had been writing the book since she was a teen; which is perhaps how she’s nailed that teenage voice. Yet it is that older, retrospective view, the growing realisation that these actions and feelings were misguided, that makes the book work.

It is not an easy read. The book is quite graphic. It is clear why Vanessa develops a crush on this teacher who charms her. Who lends her books on poetry, and brings out the poet in her. It is difficult not to love him, and as someone who’s loved all Literature professors ever, it is easy to share her fascination. It is when they start interacting that the relationship takes on a sickening, cloying quality. The ease with which he manipulates her, the small sacrifices she makes, the little things she finds herself agreeing to, the changes in her own behaviour that she justifies… seen from a third perspective, this is a hard pill to swallow. Much worse, I’m sure, if you’ve ever been in that position yourself. It’s frightening, compelling, disgusting – rolled into one.

My Dark Vanessa raises a very important question – something that we find difficult to address, awkward even, a kind of blurred line. What do we mean by “willingly” walking into an abusive sexual relationship? What do consent and complicity mean; is every relationship something of a power-play? Can a fifteen year old child have the agency that she presumes she does – could it be anything but manipulation when there is such a clearly skewed distribution of authority? What do you do with that murky, misplaced guilt of having “let” someone do that to you? As Vanessa puts it, “I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.

The author gives us multiple other voices from Vanessa’s story – her parents, other teachers, friends, her therapist. These beg the question – what do you do if this were someone you know? How do you understand, and show empathy, and reassess your ‘judgement,’ even before you help? It raises questions about victimhood, and what keeps Vanessa from putting herself into that box. She says, “This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction – once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about it. It defines you whether you want it to or not.”

A scary, frustrating book; my review, if you can call it that, has been just a list of questions. But in the month or so since I read this book, I’ve found myself asking these questions to every new story that I read, real or fiction, that is about relationships, or control, or trauma. For that reason alone, this book deserves a reading, as harrowing and infuriating as the experience is. I recommend this video review for further insight into whether you should pick up this book.

“Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what Strane did or didn’t do to me when I was younger. I’m not a victim because I never wanted to be, and if I didn’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”

World War Z by Max Brooks

To be honest, I did not imagine it would be this hard to keep my only New Year’s resolution for 2019 – to write a blog post a week. And yet, here I am, two months into the year and already failing. It’s just that I have been so incredibly busy that it’s been difficult to make time to open a book; let alone write about it! And even then, in spite of all the hair-pulling, fist-clenching, make-it-stop-screeching kind of busy that I’ve endured over these past few weeks, I’ve somehow, at the back of my mind, been chewing on this book. What follows is not my best review; rather a post-midnight spew of thought, but it’s better than nothing (so I tell myself.) 
World War Z by Max Brooks is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I’d read about it initially on the book blogging circles, many years ago, and eventually heard about the movie as well. And yet, nothing; I mean, nothing, could have prepared me for the ride that was this book. The most concise and precise review – what on earth. My reaction was as simple and as complex as that! It is easily one of the strangest, most accurate books I have ever read, and it blew me away.
The words “zombie apocalypse” bring to mind a very specific image, isn’t it? A story in the style of 28 Days Later – lone survivors, lost and hunted, and the rapid breakdown of society as we know it. Stories of apocalyptic outbreaks are almost always from a singular perspective – one man, family or group of strangers against the countless armies of the infected. This is what I expected from World War Z by Max Brooks, which has always been in the “zombie apocalypse” category. 
But World War Z is no 28 Days Later. It’s not a survivor’s drama-tragedy. It’s biting sociopolitical satire.The harsh realities and inner workings of different spheres of society, politics, geopolitics, economics, military are exposed. Written in the form of an “oral history,” that is, a series of interviews of people directly involved in a “Zombie War” that nearly eradicated all of humanity. From the very first Patient infected with the virus that reanimated the dead, to survivors across the world fleeing to the icy regions where zombies turn ineffective; soldiers from the countless armies fighting against the attacks; even the government bigwigs involved in making the plans of evacuation and counter-attack; reporters covering the mass outbreak of disease; media seizing the day to publicise anthems of hope; right up to big pharmaceutical companies manufacturing fake antidotes! 
Each interviewee has his own voice, and tone – cold, reflective, morose, shattered, clinical. The book ties all the perspectives together into a loose narrative over a few years. What we end up with is this haunting, realistic case study of what would happen if the human race were to systematically fuck itself up to a great big fall. Does it end on a sweet ray of hope? Hardly. There are places and stories which spark a light of hope in your hearts, but one that is easily squashed moments later. I mean, you can always draw inspired conclusions about this indelible nature of the human race, our ability to push through and emerge victorious in times of great strife. But we’d be fools to ignore who got us into that struggle in the first place. 
Many chapters are imprinted on my mind and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. But they’re best read, not described. To give you a taste… 

“They say great times make great men. I don’t buy it. I saw a lot of weakness, a lot of filth. People who should have risen to the challenge and either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Greed, fear, stupidity and hate. I saw it before the war, I see it today. I don’t know if great times make great men, but I know they can kill them.”
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“A lie? It’s okay. You can say it. Yes, they were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. “We’re going to be okay.” That was our message… There’s a word for that kind of lie. Hope.”
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“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and “They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.”