My Dark Vanessa Book review
April 30, 2022
“My Dark Vanessa,” written by Kate Elizabeth Russel, is a book concerning the long-term effects of childhood sexual assault. The year is 2000 and Vanessa Wye, a 15-year-old student who recently transferred to a boarding school, is manipulated by her English teacher, Jacob Strane. Seventeen years later, Wye, now an adult, is still dealing with the repercussions of what happened, with a tinge of denial, even as a former student of Strane is shouting about who Strane is on social media. Over the course of the book, it flashes back to her life before and after Strane starts to abuse her, leading up to the point where she had to leave her school, because of Strane.
Wye is not what you call a “perfect victim,” a myth that is perpetrated as a response to sexual assault. As the book centered around her life, we are privy to her internal thoughts, some of which are hard to sit through, as at times, Wye would go as far as defending Jacob, even talking with him about his students. Yet, there is a clear distinction between how much the situation affected her and how much in denial she is in due to it.
There are several commentaries on rape culture in this book, as there are different responses to what Wye goes through, and later Taylor Birch, who, in comparison to Wye, went through a less brutal situtation with Strane, yet she was more outspoken of what Strane has done to Birch. It also sheds light on how certain institutions are complicit in how they respond to certain cases, given the length that Strane was able to stay as a teacher after what happened to Vanessa.
This was a tough book to read in one sitting, due to how Russel’s detailed prose makes what happened to Wye very life-like, from the manipulations Strane put her through during the beginning stages of them getting to know each other, as well as the sexually explicit scenes. There was one scene in particular where Wye has a sexual encounter with Strane, and while she is going through the assault, the thoughts that she had throughout were very disheartening to see, as it is clear, even if she didn’t want to admit it, she didn’t want to go through with it.
It was also tough to see how much Wye ended up depending on romanticizing her relationship with Strane, in part to make sense of what ended up happening to her. Similar to other real-life situations, where there are survivors that end up either in denial or didn’t know any better. It was tough to feel for Wye when one moment, she’s is all for Strane, another moment, she feels this disgust.
If you are planning to read this book, there are a lot of scenes involving sexual assault. There are additional depictions of suicide, pedophilia, gaslighting, and physical abuse. For myself, it took months to get through the entire book, due to how many of the manipulations went on throughout the book by Strane as well as how much Wye ended up in her present. If you are able to read this book, it is worth the read, and this reviewer would highly recommend it to others.