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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hodgson

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is an uncomfortable read. I read it last year and am returning to it for a review as it has just come out in paperback in the UK within the last couple of weeks. The story centres around Vanessa Wye who, at the age of 15, had a relationship with a teacher nearly 30 years her senior. The narrative is split between Vanessa from the age of 15, up through her high school and college years, and 2017 when she is 32 years old. In 2017, her former teacher is accused of abuse by another former student and the now adult Vanessa is approached to share her story.

This was one of the most hyped books of last year and I can understand why. Despite its difficult nature, the writing is compelling. We live Vanessa’s experiences in her own words and thoughts about what is happening to her. She doesn’t view herself as a victim, either at 15 or at 32, but sees her abuse as a relationship and her abuser as a lover. She tells us that she didn’t want to have sex at the moment she first did, but also that she doesn’t consider what happened to her as rape. She vacillates between these stages of sexual awareness and extreme vulnerability, at once aware and unaware of the truth of what Strane did to her and this leaves the reader with a feeling of constant unsteadiness; I felt like I was perpetually living on a knife edge whilst reading this book.

To witness Vanessa’s grooming through her eyes, and knowing what is happening to her when she herself doesn’t fully, is almost excruciating. To see how this experience has impacted her future, her relationships with friends, family and other men is nothing short of heart-breaking. Her early promise as a student of literature has fizzled out and she has a dull job and a substance problem. She has never even kissed a boy when her teacher, Strane, makes advances towards her.

Russell has said that she spent nearly 20 years writing this novel and its publication could not be more timely. The MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on sexual violence against women and given a voice to those who have suffered abuse. Russell’s use of dual timeline, having part of the story set in 2017, allows the narrative to really highlight this contemporary movement. She doesn’t make it a straightforward read for us though: Strane is never outrightly presented as a monster as we see him through Vanessa’s eyes, and Vanessa herself can be, on occasion, quite dislikeable. That’s not to say that there is any sympathy for Strane present in the text however, and this delicate handling and balance of the subject matter is at the heart of what makes this book so well written and such an intense reading experience.

The very content of this book makes it hard to say that it is enjoyable, but it is a rewarding, powerful and moving read if you feel that you will be able to, given the intense subjects it contains. This book comes with a fair few content warnings including rape, child abuse, drug abuse and suicide.

I am also going to pop some links here to organisations that may be able to help anyone reading this who has dealt/is dealing with any of the issues addressed in this book:


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