Saturday, June 26, 2021

Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Lolita. Seductress or victim? Great love or abuse? Victim and abuse, of course. But what does Lolita herself think? Kate Elizabeth Russell's difficult and uncomfortable novel is a Lolita tale, but not from Humbert Humbert's point of view; My Dark Vanessa is from Lo's point of view then, and seventeen years on. It is graphic and hard to read, a tale that needs to see the light.

Vanessa Wye is fourteen years old and a budding poet when she convinces her parents to let her go to a top notch boarding school on a scholarship instead of to the local public school. She has a falling out with her roommate and best friend after her first year, leaving her lonely, feeling betrayed, and isolated at the beginning of her second year. She is captivated by her English teacher's interest in her writing and in her. Strane's interest and encouragement quickly goes beyond normal and acceptable as the 42 year old grooms the fifteen year old Vanessa, complimenting her in ways he shouldn't, touching her increasingly inappropriately, giving her books like Lolita to read that bend her to his thinking, and so on. As the abhorrent situation plays out, seventeen years further on, thirty-two year old Vanessa, who is still in touch sporadically with Strane, is horrified as she watches public allegations against her former teacher gather momentum. Contacted herself by the woman exposing Strane, adult Vanessa vows to say nothing, to protect her first love, truly believing that their relationship back then had been consensual and equal.

The past and present alternate in this deeply disturbing novel. The reader watches in horror as the pedophile Strane increases his hold on the teenaged Vanessa through manipulation and guilt. She rationalizes that he wouldn't jeopardize his entire life if his love for her wasn't one for the ages, convincing herself, despite her disassociation during repeated graphic rapes, that she too is in love with him, that this is nothing more than a grand, if unfairly forbidden, romance. Even in her thirties, when it is clear that her whole life has been derailed by this unnatural affair, she clings to the illusion that it was love between them, because to admit otherwise is unspeakable. The deep psychological damage Vanessa suffers is on display even as it is occurring. Russell has written a convincing portrait of a preyed upon child and the woman she grows into being. The first half of the book is well paced but the second half starts to feel repetitive and too long. Even so, the reader cannot help but writhe with repulsion and anger throughout the read and it's almost hard to know where to center all of this feeling, on Strane certainly, but also on the school and system that failed Vanessa, on Vanessa for withholding from her therapist, on the reporter who badgers her, on all of the people who saw what was happening at the time or who saw how she was so broken in the years afterwards and turned away from it. Infuriating, heartbreaking, stomach turning reading indeed.

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