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Content Warning: the following text mentions trauma, rape, sexual abuse, child’s sexual abuse, and victim blaming which may upset or offend some readers. 

A human mind is an enigma. It is powerful enough to protect oneself, to build an entirely new story to avoid a collapse, yet it may take only a second for everything to come crashing down for a trigger: there’s a new play on set, memory collecting specifics piece by piece, a fragment after another. It’s a whole new season when the leaves turn. This is what a reader witnesses in My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

My Dark Vanessa is definitely not an easy read. The novel tells Vanessa’s story from her point of view, her being the first person, present tense narrator, a somewhat unreliable one. Attending a new boarding school at 15 years old, she’s flattered by Jacob Strane, a predatory 42-year-old teacher. It all first starts with him borrowing her books and giving her attention and compliments on her hair and poetry. Later, the relationship becomes physical, Vanessa thinking she’s the one in charge with all the power – which she is not. When their relationship is being investigated in the boarding school, the victim is pushed to take the blame. 

The novel is a dual timeline thriller-of-a-kind, raising accurate questions and delaying the answers. We follow the events, shifting between the main character being a teenager – a child in legal terms – in 2001 and the adulthood in 2017. Later, when Vanessa’s sick of her life and herself, working in a hotel and living in a messy apartment smoking weed and getting drunk, the story is paralleled with #MeToo movement. The novel shows the complexity of victimhood: how trauma affects a person and the whole entirety, how it shapes one’s mould of which it seems impossible to get out. It makes one believe a false truth, it makes one want to believe it since the opposite would be excruciating. Vanessa’s situation is even more problematic for the attachment that she feels for Strane, the man behind all the abuse and manipulation. 

The prose is very well executed, descriptive, showing instead of telling. I am fascinated by the metaphors which deepen the narration. However, other characters seem a bit shallow and somehow, I feel as though the rape scenes are somewhat romanticised. My Dark Vanessa is a dark debut about sexual abuse and rape, a book that awakens every possible emotion – from time to time makes the reader want to puke and throw stuff – and nevertheless, a piece that everyone capable of dealing with such readings should get their hands on. There are so many voices about the matter that need to be heard and this is definitely one of them. 

Kukka Raejärvi

Helsinki '23

English major and an aspiring activist who mostly chills with her dogs or reads books.
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