“All he did was fall in love with me and the world turned him into a monster”
This is one of the most jarring, disconcerting yet nonetheless striking novels I have ever read, and I have really mixed feelings about it.
My Dark Vanessa follows the life of Vanessa Wye, switching between her 15-year-old self, where she was groomed and coerced into a sexual relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher, Mr Strane, and modern day, where at 32-years-old, she is starting to come to terms with what happened in her past, following a string of allegations that have exploded in the midst of the contemporary climate. The book begins in the year 2000, where 15-year-old Vanessa starts her new school, Browick; at the beginning she is excited and ambitious, before the subtle advances from Strane start to ensue. However, rather than feeling victimised, afraid and powerless, Vanessa feels as though she is an exception to the rule of consensual, appropriate (and LEGAL) relationships; she is the one, special girl who she believes Strane has risked his reputation, career and freedom for, and she truly believes that their relationship is an immense, passionate love story that no one else could possibly understand; it is absolutely chilling to witness the coercive, calculating behaviours enforced by Strane, filtered through the innocent, and completely manipulated mind of Vanessa.
I found this book so unsettling, and there were moments where I felt sick, and had to walk away from it. The reader is transported into Vanessa’s head, and we see all the tricks and tactics Strane uses to break her down; the frightening thing about this, was that as an adult reader outside of the situation looking in, it is easy to recognise such manipulation, but Vanessa is forced to constantly question herself and the world around her, as her entire adolescent life, and views of life, have been shaped by her abuser.
I really enjoyed the alternation between the time frames; it was interesting to see how much the abuse Vanessa endured throughout her early life had shaped her sense of self as an adult; over the course of the novel, we see that it has impacted everything, from the way she interacts with people, her job, and her attitudes towards sex. It was fascinating, yet tragic, how she still continues to engage with Strane even years later, despite him no longer being attracted to her; it is glaringly clear how attached she is to him, and that she imagined their relationship as an almighty love story, rather than the abusive reality of which she was a victim. By extension, I enjoyed the interwoven literary references, particularly that of Nabokov’s Lolita, which is first introduced to Vanessa when Strane gives her a copy; there are textual and thematic references throughout the novel, and Vanessa definitely idealises and romanticises the relationship between her and Strane, and the characters of the book.
There were, however, many aspects of the book that I did not like, and found very frustrating. One of which is the passivity and seemingly willing blindness of Vanessa’s parents, who know what is going on, but appear to think it is better left unmentioned. The same goes for the behaviour of the school; several of the teachers seem to prefer to turn a blind eye to the situation, despite the blatant inappropriateness of the relationship between Strane and Vanessa. Though this does reflect the reality of these situations in real-life, I did nonetheless find it incredibly infuriating. Secondly, I did not enjoy the length, and pace of the book; at times, I felt that the book was far too long, though I can see that this may have been intentional, as a way of reflecting the gradual pace of Strane’s grooming process of Vanessa. However, I did, at some parts, find myself loosing interest; some sections of the book seem to linger on insignificant details and chunks of dialogue that appear to have had no wider importance, and I felt that the last 50 pages or so dragged, and that the ending was very abrupt, and did not tie up the story succinctly.
Have you read My Dark Vanessa? Let me know your thoughts!
Thank you for reading ❤