My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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Fiction has always been known for expanding on fact so it’s not surprising that the fiction of the last four years, with all the political and social upheaval, has gotten more and more outsized. Author Kate Russell joins the fray with, My Dark Vanessa, her debut novel about a young woman who has an ongoing relationship with a man that began when she was 15 and he was 42. Not surprisingly, he was her teacher. I was hesitant about the novel because even before #MeToo fictional, inappropriate relationships between older teachers and younger students abounded. It’s a subject that often veers into the sensationalistic so I wasn’t sure how this novel would be different or why I needed to read it.
Where Russell breaks from the pack is with Vanessa. As the novel begins in 2017 she is an adult, working as a concierge at a hotel. She’s been contacted by the teacher, Jacob Strane, because he’s being investigated for the sexual harassment of another student. The twist? They’ve already been down this path in 2000, when he was reported for a suspected relationship with her. At that time, she publicly protected him and the case was dropped. Still, she’s part of the school’s historical record for Strane and he fears she’ll change her mind. She reassures him that their relationship has always been consensual and she’ll take no part in any case against him. This is the perspective that Russell teases out, slowly and with care.
This is the perspective that drives My Dark Vanessa and Russell teases it out, slowly and with care. One of the key ways she does this is by flipping between past and present. Chapters move between 2000 when Vanessa was a bright, but socially awkward teenager to 2017 when, although she’s an adult, her life is in many ways stunted. Her therapist forces her to fill in a calendar with the most rudimentary chores, yet she is still unable to accomplish the majority of tasks. These scenes of the present juxtaposed against the past paint a picture that shimmers with contradictions. Getting a clear handle on what happened is not easy.
This is an inflammatory topic that for some should not be explored, but Russell peels back the layers of Vanessa’s psyche to get to the truth of her experience. She takes a potentially one-note story and expands it into dimensions not previously considered. Which is not to say she romanticizes anything. It is seamy and the truth will out, but within the confines of fiction My Dark Vanessa is a masterful exploration of an unpalatable subject.
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