In My Dark Vanessa, the eponymous protagonist is just fifteen when she begins her relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher Jacob Strane. Lonely and struggling to fit in, Vanessa is immediately struck by what she perceives as the blossoming of first love. Written in the first person, we are shown the direct impact Strane’s flirtation and seduction has on a vulnerable teenager. Telling her she’s ‘special’, he gives her Ariel by Sylvia Plath, the jubilant red-haired protagonist of Lady Lazarus reminding him of Vanessa’s ‘maple leaf’ tresses.
Soon she is devouring poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, another red head from Maine, and he eventually gifts her his beloved copy of Lolita, the latter becoming the literary blueprint for their relationship. In what is undoubtedly the most infamous literary exploration of consent, Lolita’s unreliable narrator Humbert denounces the power of the “nymphets” who walk among “ordinary” teenage girls: “she stands unrecognised by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power”. The conflation of youth with power is a tool used by predators in an attempt to remove their accountability, by giving underage girls a false sense of autonomy. When we see Vanessa Rye read these words in Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, she quickly latches on to this acknowledgement of control: “I have power. Power to make it happen. Power over him.”
All of this must be kept a secret – the first test of her loyalty – and their ‘affair’ becomes cloaked in the veil of forbidden love; they are ‘dark romantics’, star-crossed lovers drawn to each other against the backdrop of a high school classroom. Words have the power to wield and coerce, something Strane knows all too well as an English teacher. In nauseatingly voyeuristic moments, Russell forces us to see just how potent Strane’s toxicity is. Alarm bells ring when he rests his head in Vanessa’s lap lamenting, “I’m going to ruin you”. In a distinctly Nabokovian scene, he gives her strawberry print pyjamas to wear for their first night together. Worryingly still is Vanessa’s inability to fully comprehend what is happening: “I’m lucky to have this, to be so loved”.
When we meet 32-year-old Vanessa in 2017, the repercussions of the MeToo movement are palpable. Strane is at the centre of multiple allegations of historical sexual abuse, yet Vanessa resolutely maintains that she “wasn’t abused, not like other women are claiming to have been”. She still views her experiences through the lens of illicit love and is “mad at the world for turning him into a monster”. Parroting Strane’s arguments, the lasting psychosomatic impacts of his exploitation are visceral.
Vanessa’s refusal to label herself a victim may be an attempt to convey strength, but to us as readers, all it does is emphasis her internalisation of the poison that has been dripped in her ears since adolescence. The other victims are merely “carried away” with the “hysteria that’s going on”, the trauma they’ve suffered reduced to criteria that must be satisfied in order to become part of a popular movement. It makes Vanessa a difficult and frustrating narrator, as her inability to acknowledge her own experiences prevents her from accepting those of other women.
My Dark Vanessa has been called ‘the most controversial book of the year’, yet is a compelling, powerful and urgent portrayal of manipulation that depicts the deeply pervasive psychological effects of underage grooming.
Words by Sabrina Matica-Hickey
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