When you find yourself audibly yelling at the characters in a book like you’re watching a horror movie, you know you’re reading something special. My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel from Kate Elizabeth Russell, enrages, amuses, perplexes and ultimately batters the reader into despair.
In this challenging and transgressive masterpiece, Vanessa Wye narrates two timelines of her life: one beginning in 2000, when she goes away to boarding school at age 15 and becomes the target of her English teacher’s advances, and 2017, when said teacher, Jacob Strane, is being investigated for sexually assaulting a different student.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the twisting plot and unsettling behavior, what stands out to me is Russell’s handling of the two voices. It’s challenging enough to believably capture the voice of a teenage character, but to also balance that with a more mature voice that is consistent with that of the child is remarkable.
That Russell pulls it off in her debut novel is astounding.
Practically every page has a line that cut into me on some emotional level, whether it was an insight into the pressures young women face; pervasive pop culture that glamorizes statutory rape; the cruel and humiliating treatment dealt to victims of sexual violence; or a personal reckoning with my own youthful behavior.
The latter is why I feel the #MeToo movement has been such a wake-up call to many men. It brought home not only the frequency of sexual harassment and assault, but also introduced many of us to the broader scope of what it is.
It’s alarming to think of how common the behaviors at the lower end of the sexual violence spectrum were in the 1980s and ’90s — and how many of them, such as leering and catcalling, were expected of young boys as part of our development.
That underlines the importance of My Dark Vanessa. It’s tough to read for both the subject matter and for the way it forces the reader to truly consider how they would react in this situation. It also provides a long-overdue response to Lolita.
Of course, Nabokov’s controversial novel is unavoidable when discussing a book like this, and Russell takes it head on. She writes in the afterward: “I imagined the novel I wished I could have discovered alongside Lolita at fourteen, how it might have felt then to read a book that told her story rather than his.”
Like Russell, I have a complicated relationship with Lolita. It’s one of my favorite novels, but at the same time it is criminally misunderstood. The trope of a “Lolita” as a girl who is sexually aggressive toward older men is a sick distortion.
It speaks volumes about our culture that a novel about raping and kidnapping a twelve-year-old girl has been twisted into a cultural archetype to mean an insatiable teenager who seduces middle-aged men against their will.
That’s exactly why My Dark Vanessa is such an important book.
Even if, like me, you read transgressive fiction quite often, this book will haunt you — not for its salacious content, but for how insidious the sexual violence pervades every interaction in the book. Russell is not aggressive in her return serve of the male gaze. She simply holds a mirror up to it — and what she reflects back is something ugly, something that demands reckoning, that refuses to be ignored.
With Lolita, it is easy to distance oneself from the villain. In My Dark Vanessa, there is no such mercy. No doubt, this is one of the most disturbing and important books I’ve ever read.