I learnt about the book ‘My Dark Vanessa’ by Kate Elizabeth Russell by accident. It was after I had stumbled across an online article about how there was a debate raging in literary circles over a book that hadn’t even hit the stands yet. The release date was March 2020.
Kate Elizabeth Russell, who apparently started working on her debut novel as far back as 2009, was accused of plagiarism by another author Wendy Oritz. The latter claimed that Russell’s novel was just the fictional version of a reality she lived as a teen; her experiences chronicled in the 2015 book called ‘Excavation’.
So what is ‘My Dark Vanessa’ about? The story is about how a vulnerable 15-year-old girl is emotionally manipulated into a physical relationship with her teacher. Jacob Strane, a 40-something English teacher, singles out Vanessa, who has no friends and is struggling at boarding school to be his ‘Lolita’. The book, by the author’s own admission is heavily inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial classic about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a 12-year-old.
Just the mere thought of a 40-plus man physically abusing a 15-year-old in a methodical manner is repulsive. And when you read the story from the point of view of the teen, who was brainwashed into believing that she was in a ‘consensual’ loving relationship with someone probably older than her dad, it’s uncomfortable, to say the least. But despite the unpalatable premise, the book is interesting.
Russell has written this book in what seems like an effortless flow. The language is neither too colloquial, nor too formal/heavy. The plot flits between 2001 & 2017. The story is a slow but smooth ping-pong match between the past and the present.
While like a lot of books, this one too has a slow start. After a first few chapters, the next 150 pages are gripping and binge-worthy. And then comes a point where as a reader you think that the book is heading to a climax, when you rudely realize the fact that you are only half-way through. (I was reading the e-book)
‘My Dark Vanessa’ soon gets tedious and irritating and I found myself skipping a lot of paragraphs in the second half. Russell could have perhaps slashed the book by at least 50 pages, if not more. Too much of the text is spent on Vanessa trying to justify her abusive relationship with Strane, even when she is an adult woman of 30.
Strane finds himself accused of abusing several of his students, the allegations coming in the midst of ‘Me Too’ movement. And as other victims hope for her to step up and implicate him to bolster their fight, she never does. On the contrary, Vanessa refuses to even believe the victims, adamant on living in her own delusional bubble.
There are some inconsistencies with the protagonist’s characterization, while for most part, she is portrayed as an asocial, mature girl, a literary genius in the making; yet there are plenty of times when she acts like nothing but a 10-year-old brat. These inconsistencies are irritating.
None of the characters in the book are likable. It’s probably because none of them get enough space in the book, they are just weak shadows on the sides. What I really didn’t like about the book is how there is absolutely no background story to Strane. His life before Vanessa is an absolute blank. Instead there are boring mundane details of Vanessa’s college life that can be skipped. Like I said, it’s 50 pages too long.
The book is thought provoking, making you question institutions, like schools and even families. Who is to blame for the ruin of a 15-year-old girl’s life? It seems like everybody had a little role to play.
‘My Dark Vanessa’ gives the reader an eerie peek into the mind of a young girl, who was ‘groomed’ by a pedophile into a repulsive relationship. The girl is made to believe she is a ‘nymphet’ who is in power of what happens, when really its the odious older man who is in charge of the story.
If that subject is something you are not interested in, you are perhaps better off without reading this book. It could turn into a frustrating experience.