My Dark Vanessa was not on my To-Be-Read list. I would have never picked this book at a book store or a library. It’s not my genre. I accidentally stumbled upon it when I signed on for a book club. Without knowing what the book of the month was, I registered and blocked my slot. (The book club organisers should have included sufficient trigger warnings, but they didn’t) On that note, here is my trigger warning – If you are a victim of abuse or rape, tread lightly, Russell makes no attempts to soften the blow. It will be a difficult read. For everyone else: Tread lightly. This book is a difficult read. It will make you squirm in disgust. It will shake you to the core and make you very very uncomfortable.
For the benefit of those who are unsure about the hype around this book. Well, My Dark Vanessa touches on the lesser known evils of our society – the sexual predators, the emotional abusers, the manipulators, the victim blamers and the ones who do unspeakable things and get away. Specifically, this book tells us a story of a 15-year old Vanessa who moves away from home to a boarding school armed with potential to do big in the literary world. At Browick she meets Jack Strane, her 42-year old English teacher.. and she falls in love. Or she thinks it’s love. Channel your thoughts back to your 15-year old self. At that age, is it even possible to compartmentalise feelings into – love, respect and admiration? Isn’t it all a jumbled mess till hormones kick in and you start to make some sense out of it all? To check if I am on the right track, I asked my husband at what age did he think he fell in love. His reply was – “puppy love or being aware of the dynamics of a man-woman relationship?” And that is what it was. Vanessa Wye had a puppy love crush on her teacher. It was her bad luck that the person she chose for this harmless feeling was a psychopath, a pedophile.
My Dark Vanessa has lots of references to the 1995 novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. I’ve read Lolita, albeit forcefully and just to tick it off my list, but I can’t compare Humbert and Dolores with Strane and Vanessa. For me, the former were characters in a fictional setting. On the other hand, Strane and Vanessa seem real. Lolita was written in a humorous, ornate and highly visual style. My Dark Vanessa on the other hand talks to today’s reader – the year is 2017, the Me Too movement is on the rise and the language used in the book is super relevant.
I’ve read some reviews of this book where readers have shown their indignation and exasperation towards Vanessa. “How could she allow IT to happen for so long?” “Why did Vanessa indulge Strane?” I too had questions while reading the book, but my questions were directed to the staff of Browick, Vanessa’s parents and her teachers. How could they allow a sexual predator to run around free? And for me that is the premise of the book. It’s no longer about Vanessa, the victim. The book is about our society, about all of us. We know predators exist, but what are we doing to keep these vermin in check? By questioning the protagonist’s lack of astuteness and inability to take a stand for herself, we are directly promoting the case of ‘victimhood’. In fact, there are multiple references in the book where Vanessa would rather continue on with her life than publicly admit to Strane’s doings and be labeled as a victim. So what does she do? She numbs her pain and tells herself that at 15 she knew better than others. At 15, she fell in love with her teacher. At 15, when he forced herself on her she enjoyed it, because he enjoyed it. Isn’t that what love is, she tells herself, to be selfless?
Unlike Lolita, where we see the story unfold through Humbert’s eyes, My Dark Vanessa is written from Vanessa’s perspective. Russell has artfully presented the story in a way that resonates differently with each reader. The more you peel back the layers, the deeper you can get to the psychology of the characters, each representing a pillar of our society – the ignorant father, the timid mother, a righteous friend trying to fix things but fails due to lack of support and the controlling authorities. This book has woken me from a deep slumber and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to read this. We talk to our kids about the “good touch and bad touch” and how to differentiate between the two, but I feel it is equally necessary to openly discuss the manipulation techniques abusers use. While reading this book I could visualise a similar scenario that Vanessa faced, in a work or a domestic setting. I came across this article which talks about the psychological persuasion techniques that sexual predators use to exploit their victims.
I would highly recommend this book to every reader – not for the purpose of relaxation or enjoyment but to understand the psychology behind the victim’s silence and the abuser’s repetitiveness. Do yourself a favour, and read it to be an aware and responsible citizen of the world.