Investigating the mental elements of the connection between an intelligent yet credulous high school young lady and her attractive and manipulative educator, a splendid, all-expending read that denotes the unstable introduction of a phenomenal new author.
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The novel opens in 2017 when Vanessa is 32 and Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by another former pupil.
Though Vanessa is still unable to admit that the relationship was harmful, it is clear that the fallout has devastated her subsequent life. Her early verve and literary promise remain unfulfilled, she has a dull job at a hotel desk and props herself up with drink, drugs and casual encounters with unappetising older men. Worse, she remains fixated on her abuser.
Written in the first person from Vanessa’s point of view, the novel switches back and forth between 2017 and the years when she was a schoolgirl and then a college student. Strane’s accuser wants the older Vanessa to support the case and admit what happened to her, but she refuses. “I wasn’t abused, not like that,” she believes. Not “raped raped”. She considers the notion that Strane groomed her, but “all I can think of is the lovely warm feeling I’d get when he stroked my hair”.
The author skilfully reveals the contradictions of a teenager who can be simultaneously sexually mature and extremely vulnerable, highly intelligent and incapable of protecting herself.
Stephen King called this book “a package of dynamite”, and it is. The writing is dark, shocking, occasionally nauseating and will rightly be labelled “brave”.
Actually, you have to be pretty brave to read it. It is hard to witness the repeated rape of a girl who is filled with longing and desire for a monstrous man. Strane (he is never Jacob) makes Vanessa complicit: calling her “the same as me. Separate from others, craving dark things”.
Vanessa is a classic victim who protects her abuser, but even as a 15-year-old, she recognises her perverse potency as an illegal object of desire. “Jailbait means having the power to turn a man into a criminal with just one touch,” she writes in a notebook.
The subsequent storm led Russell to confirm that the novel was inspired by her own teenage experiences; but whatever the back story, My Dark Vanessa’s greatest achievement is its clear-sighted exploration of the ambiguities inherent in abusive relationships. Love is never the justification for harm.
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