*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?”