Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

Overall Rating: 4/5

Trigger Warning: Pedophilia, Abuse

Wow, I have never felt so glued to a book that simultaneously frustrated and disturbed me as deeply as My Dark Vanessa. Knowing the general plot of the story beforehand – a teenage girl being groomed by her school teacher – I would be lying if I said I was not skeptical going into it. After all, Kate Elizabeth Russell herself said that a part of what drove her to write My Dark Vanessa was an attempt to confront her “complex feelings” towards Nabokov’s Lolita, indicating the misguided interpretation and romanticization of works addressing similar topics. My Dark Vanessa, however, did not disappoint.

Russell’s nuanced approach at tackling the psychological and societal dynamics prevalent in “relationships” such as the one between Vanessa and Jacob is both thought-provoking and unsettling. Vanessa herself is a complex character, one that defies typical stereotypes regarding victimized children, making her story all the more important to share. She comes from a seemingly normal household, experiences average teenage conflicts, yet these markers of a stable childhood do not protect her. Russell does a phenomenal job of exploring Vanessa’s psychology carefully – providing an intimate portrait of a survivor of abuse unlike anything I have read before. Her portrayal of the actual abuse as well as Vanessa’s perceptions of it are not black and white. Instead, Russell explores the shades of grey in which abuse can manifest itself to those involved, creating a valuable sense of empathy (and frustration) within the reader. Most importantly – and in contrast to Lolita – Russell writes from the perspective of the victim, which allows her to explore the nooks and crannies of her psyche in order to provide a sharp commentary on societal enablers of such narratives.

There were a few things about the novel that I was personally conflicted about. The first half of the book was fast paced and focused heavily on her history with Jacob, but I would have loved to see more of Vanessa’s healing later on. While I appreciate a good time-period switch, I became less interested by the chapters dedicated to her experience in college, and was anxiously awaiting to learn about her present. I understand that this was a critical lens through which to view her continued trauma but it started to feel repetitive with little additional impact. I might not have minded as much if I did not feel as though Vanessa’s actual healing was a little rushed at the end of the book but upon reflecting, would have preferred to dedicate more time to her growth.

My Dark Vanessa is not an easy book to read, but it is such an important story. Despite the era of #MeToo, there is still critical work to be done in understanding the complexities of survivor mindsets – one that is often painted in broad strokes by the media. By no means is this book a comprehensive look at victim psychology – and it does not intend to be – but it is a bridge to deeper empathy.

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