Kate Elizabeth Russell does away with taboo in her debut, My Dark Vanessa. Many will likely label it “controversial.” But there are many reasons why everyone should read Russell’s novel depicting child abuse and pedophilia.
When My Dark Vanessa begins, the year is 2017 and Vanessa Wyes is 32 years old. She’s obsessively checking a Facebook post where someone has come out denouncing Jacob Strane as a child molester — the same man that just over 15 years ago preyed on Vanessa when she attended Browick School.
Taylor, the girl behind the popular post, has reached out to Vanessa and asked her to come out in support, asking her to share her story and help stop Strane once and for all, as well as to reveal Browick’s duplicity — a school more concerned with covering up the scandal than they care about the safety and protection of their students.
Vanessa doesn’t want to come out for several reasons. For starters, she’s still in touch with Strane. Secondly, she doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, having willingly complied with much of what Strane did to her. Thirdly, she’s simply not ready.
My Dark Vanessa has been described as “Lolita from Lolita’s perspective” and that’s perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions out there. In her novel, Russell goes to places that not many authors since Nabokov have dared to go, with a cutting honesty, articulation and understanding of a perspective not usually represented when these stories of sexual abuse are exposed.
Vanessa believes herself complicit, so young was she when it all happened that it has defined her for her entire adult life. She fails to understand all the ways in which Strane manipulated her, coercing her to believe she was just as guilty as he. Vanessa believes, even into adulthood, that theirs was a love story; something unusual and unspoken but not wrong in her eyes.
There are moments in the novel that are revolting and low-key traumatizing to the reader that has never experienced the atrocities written about in the book and outright triggering to those who have. However, this doesn’t mean that books like these shouldn’t be written or read. It’s only through narratives such as Russell’s that light can sometimes be shed on a topic that’s so difficult to talk about, understand, and sometimes straight-up taboo.
Though dealing with dark and heavy themes, Russell’s prose is exquisite, as she finds enlightening ways of putting words together to create a crisp understanding of this complicated subject. Like finding beauty in a wasteland, Russell strikes a win for literature by bringing the abstractly somber into the physical and creating something that ravages but lures at the same time.
Readers should come to My Dark Vanessa, not with fear or repulsion but with the willingness to have their minds opened, to understand the complexity of what sexual abuse means and what it does to its victims.