Fiction: My Dark Vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell
4th Estate €12.99
In 2001, Vanessa Wye is a bright and promising 15-year-old student in Browick private school, when her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, first makes a play for her.
In 2017, with the #MeToo movement finding its feet, Vanessa is 32 and her future is behind her. She lives alone in Portland, Maine, and she works in a local hotel. She smokes a bowl of blow before her shift every day and drinks herself to sleep every night. Her father has died recently and the only real boyfriend she's ever had has moved on.
In an early conversation with the ex-boyfriend, Vanessa insists that Strane has nothing to do with her life having gone down the toilet. He loved her. "It wasn't about how young I was... Above everything else, he loved my mind." Indeed.
It's Vanessa's mind that's the trouble. She's still crippled by an insane loyalty to Strane. And as the story unfolds of what Strane did to her - quite apart from statutory rape - you have to wonder why. But then you also have to wonder at society's widespread acceptance of older men coupling with younger women. Why is this considered normal?
Vanessa is still in touch with Strane and she muses: "I assume I'll be the one he turns to in 10 or 15 years, whenever his body begins to break down. That seems the likely ending to this love story: me dropping everything and doing anything, devoted as a dog, as he takes and takes and takes."
But with the rapid growth of #MeToo, she discovers that Strane is in real trouble. She receives a DM from another ex-student of Browick who accused Strane of sexual misconduct 10 years previously and got nowhere. Strane is still in his teaching position.
Vanessa initially ignores the DM but can't ignore the intrusion of a less-than-wholesome journalist who doorsteps her. The journalist is investigating Strane. The unravelling begins.
This is an extremely uncomfortable read. And that is its strength. Strane's many attempts throughout the novel at self-justification are bone-chilling, as indeed is Vanessa's unfathomable ocean of shame. Nabokov's Lolita does several turns as Strane's bible, upping the creep factor with its every appearance.
Since My Dark Vanessa was written, back in the real world Harvey Weinstein has been found guilty. But he's only one man. There are countless Harvey Weinsteins out there and as Vanessa's therapist points out, "these men hide in plain sight". Never a truer word.
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