My Dark Vanessa is a novel about a relationship between a fifteen year old girl and her English teacher, looking at what happens when she has to confront what occurred between them in the wake of various sexual abuse allegations against powerful men coming to light. Vanessa is fifteen and lonely at her new boarding school. Her English teacher seems to understand her, though. When they end up in a relationship, she believes that it is love, and he desperately tells her that. But now she’s thirty two and the teacher, Jacob Strane, is being accused of sexual abuse by another ex-student, she has to think about everything that has happened between them, through layers of trauma and what he managed to convince her was true.
This is no easy book to read. It has been described as a kind of reworking or subversion of Lolita, and Nabokov’s novel is a central theme throughout as Strane uses it as a way of grooming Vanessa to see herself as the one with the power, and it is important that people are aware of this similarity and of the content of My Dark Vanessa before picking it up. It is, intentionally, deeply uncomfortable, as the novel is from Vanessa’s point of view so the reader gets to see the ways in which she is manipulated and how this cannot be undone years later. Russell does well to get across the trauma and abuse that Vanessa suffers through the prose style, making scenes between her and Strane disturbing even whilst Vanessa is claiming it is love and it is what she wants.
It was difficult to read the novel without keeping an eye towards how it might end and how it would present Vanessa’s story as a whole. Overall, it delves into the complexity of what Vanessa suffers, including the hard facts of facing up to a movement standing up to sexual abuse when someone was groomed to believe it wasn’t abuse. In some ways, it feels like it highlights how certain elements of art— like Lolita, but also other references made in the novel—can be wilfully misread or interpreted to justify abuse and to manipulate people. It isn’t a novel that ends with a big, unambiguous statement, and there is a lot to take in and think about rather than easy answers given.