My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – Book Review

Title: My Dark Vanessa (review copy)

Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell

Genre/Themes: Literary Drama, Contemporary, Dual Timeline (past and present), Child Grooming, Paedophilia, Sexual Predator, Sexual Assault, Rape, Mental Health, PTSD, Consent, Victim Agency

Blurb from Goodreads

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past.

But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?

Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

My Review

I am blown away by the powerful nature of this novel.

This is one of the best written books I have read in years.

Be warned, this book deals with dark subject matter, that of child grooming and protracted sexual abuse.

This book is necessary.

This book truly gets inside the mind of the victim, Vanessa, and shows..

It shows how she thinks she lived the love story of our times but was in fact the victim of the most predatory of men and it is heartbreaking. To see the workings of her mind as we go from fifteen year old youthful exuberance to a broken thirty something…

The book alternates between Vanessa’s past and her present as she unravels more of what happened to her. The book shows how she misremembered things and how that as a reader we can see the manipulation that occurred but then we get to see her perspective. And how she has this view of the world because of the insidious grooming that took place.

And the grooming… Oh gosh it’s horrible. As a reader you just want to scream and shout and ask why is no one doing anything. There was all this rumour and then evidence…

And the world looked away…

But all the while Vanessa is a child. And Mr Strane is three times her age…

This book is so painful.

This book is an indictment on how completely lax and complicit we have been as a society. It is an indictment on how we have terms and sayings like it’s not “rape rape” if there was perceived consent because she was a slut or nymphet type character, or if her body orgasmed then how could it be rape??

Rape is rape but this book dares to show up the darkest and most troubling belief’s of society and makes us uncomfortable for having those societal beliefs.

This book left me broken. It left me angry, frustrated… I want to scream from the top of my lungs about consent and what it truly means. I want to scream where was the protection for this child. How was she left singularly under this man’s control.

But I also love how this dares to ask questions about the agency of the victim. About how in this era it is somewhat expected that they reveal their stories to the world at large. How if one person comes forward that was a victim of a particular sexual perpetrator, other victims are again shamed and blamed if they too don’t come forward.

It asks to whom does the narrative belong to?

Can a victim truly be sympathised with and respected if they wish to stay quiet? If they wish to live as normal a life as they can.

And that to me is where this novel is brilliant.

It exposes the tabloid nature of the modern era and instead asks us to always respect the victim and their agency over the narrative of their experience.

And also to respect that because of the insidiousness of sexual abuse that these people, are not always able to see things as black and white. That consent to them is greyed because inherently no one wants to be seen as a victim. Everyone wants to be seen as strong and powerful. Of always being in charge…

And this is portrayed in this novel as how the sexual predator always used gas-lighting techniques and honeyed words to groom his victim into thinking he was a helpless man that couldn’t resist her nymphet charms. And Vanessa believed that. Even when she was being raped she believed it was sex, that it was nice, that he asked her if it was okay… even though he had already removed her underwear, was already engaging in oral sex with her, was already thrusting into her… he repeatedly told her it was nice and he said she was okay…

Fair warning, this book is graphic in detail. But not in some gratuitous manner. It all feels necessary and integral to exploring Vanessa’s mindset and how she was groomed.

This is the book that we need. That this book, although uncomfortable, truly gives voice to victims of sexual abuse and very much opens up the conversation about consent and agency over the narrative of a victim’s life story.

five stars.

I was invited to read an e-copy of this book by the publisher, Harper Collins UK: 4th Estate, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Publication: January 23rd 2020

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