I 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.