My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell

vanessaI finished Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa a couple days ago, but I had to let it sit with me before I made any attempt to write about it. It tells the story of a relationship that develops between fifteen-year-old Vanessa and her English teacher, Jacob Strane, who is 42.

Jacob Strane is an imposing teacher at Browick, a boarding school in Maine, “gleaming white clapboard and brick.” When the novel opens, Vanessa is returning to Browick for her sophomore year. Her freshman year was a it of a disaster, ending in a shattered relationship with her best friend and roommate, Jenny.

A bit of a loner, Vanessa is immediately taken with Mr. Strane. It’s kind of hard to miss him.

He has wavy black hair and a black beard, glasses that reflect a glare so you can’t see his eyes, but the first thing I notice about him – the first thing anyone must notice – is his size. He’s not fat but big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space.

Encouraged by her faculty adviser, Vanessa joins the creative writing club and starts spending more and more time with Strane. He encourages her writing, talks to her like an adult, shares books and poetry with her (including, unsurprisingly, Lolita) and begins the slow and careful grooming process, which ultimately leads to their sexual relationship.

My Dark Vanessa is a difficult book to read on a lot of levels. For one, I am a teacher and Strane’s abuse of Vanessa’s trust is despicable. He manipulates her in ways that are apparent to us, but not to her. At one point he tells her “I want to be a positive presence in your life…Someone you can look back on and remember fondly, the funny old teacher who was pathetically in love with you but kept his hands to himself and was a good boy in the end.”

In some ways, Vanessa is aware of her own power over Strane. After this admission she “becomes someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I’m worthy of his love.” But even this seeming self-awareness is coloured by the fact that he has groomed her; it would take a very mature and confident person to see through Strane’s flattery and gaslighting.

The novel jumps back in forth covering the period of time when Vanessa is at Browick, in 2000, and then seven years later and seventeen years later. Vanessa revisits her relationship in light of allegations that Strane had been inappropriate (to put it mildly) with another student, possibly more than one.  It’s the beginning of the #MeToo movement, after all. The book captures how this relationship has completely derailed her life and coloured all her subsequent relationships. Even though Strane is repulsive, Vanessa seems unable to disconnect.

I wouldn’t say My Dark Vanessa was an enjoyable read, but it is compelling. It’ll make you feel squicky,  and it will frustrate you, but I don’t think you will be able to stop turning the pages. I think it’s a very accomplished debut.

There is some controversy surrounding the book. This article in The Guardian offers a comprehensive look at some of it.

 

 

 

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

One of my all-time favourite childhood movies is The Railway Children.  I don’t remember the-railway-children-26specifically when I first watched it, but it came out in 1970 and I probably saw it shortly after that. I have it on VHS somewhere, but no longer have a VHS machine. I did, however, have the book.

E. Nesbit’s story, first published in 1906, tells the story of siblings Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis who live with their well-to-do parents “in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa.” Their father works in government and their mother was always “ready to play with the children, and read to them, and help them to do their home-lessons.”

One evening, out of the blue, two men arrive at the villa and the father is “called away on business.” Afterwards, the children and their mother leave London and head out to the countryside where they will live in a “ducky dear little white house.” Although they seem to be destitute they get by. The mother is a writer and when she sells a story, the children get a treat of buns.

The children occupy their days with adventures, including making friends with the porter at the local railway station and an old gentleman who waves at them from the window of the 9:15 train they nickname the Green Dragon. There is pretty much nothing sweeter than what these three kids get up to. They are thoughtful, resilient, and kind. Revisiting their story was like being wrapped in a warm hug and Bobbie’s sentiments seemed particularly poignant given the circumstances in which we find ourselves at this point in history:

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be un – friends.

 

How to Make Friends with the Dark – Kathleen Glasgow

I started reading Kathleen Glasgow’s YA novel How to Make Friends with the Dark at school last week…and then all hell broke loose. On Friday March 13 (how appropriate, eh?) the government of New Brunswick closed all schools in the province for a two week period (minimum) in an effort to slow down the spread of Covid-19. So, that’s me, home for at least two weeks. These are weird times, people.

Luckily, I have enough unread books in my house to last a least five years and so I am going to to look at social-distancing as a gift of time. If nothing else, reading will distract me  from this new world. I am a naturally optimistic person and I hope that when we come out on the other side we will be kinder to each other, and gentler to the planet.

darkHow to Make Friends with the Dark is the story of fifteen-year-old Grace “Tiger” Tolliver. She lives with her single mother, June, a kind but ineffective parent.

We’re what my mom likes to call “a well-oiled, good-looking, and good-smelling machine.” But I need the other half of my machine to beep and whir at me, and do all that other stuff moms are supposed to do. If I don’t have her, I don’t have anything.

On the day Tiger and Kai, a boy from school, finally kiss (something Tiger has been dreaming about for a long time), the unthinkable happens: Tiger’s mother dies.  (Not a spoiler, the blurb tells you as much.) The aftermath of her mom’s death, and Tiger’s grief is what Glasgow’s very affecting book is about.

You feel skinned. Like whatever held you together has been peeled away. You half expect to look down and see your heart hanging out, a slow-beating, nearly dead thing.

Your legs wobble and your mouth tastes dry and your mother is dead.

Because Tiger has no other family member available to take her, she is placed into the foster system (which is shocking given that her best friend’s parents are willing to look after her, but rules.) Her first foster placement is not great; her second placement is better.

The book traces Tiger’s journey down into the dark sinkhole of grief.  There is very little light down there and Glasgow  doesn’t shy away from the ugly places grief sometimes takes us. If you think you’re in for an unremittingly grim read, you’re not totally wrong, but there is some light in the darkness. Tiger  is a sympathetic character and anyone who has ever lost someone dear to them will recognize her struggles, her small victories and her grief.