The adult Vanessa is a classic unreliable narrator, and as she is reporting the sexual entanglement the reader becomes queasily aware of this ... One of the cleverest aspects of the novel is how it resists the facile linear form of revelation; it backs up toward insights, runs away from them, sifts through them again, obsesses. The book reads like a thriller or mystery story though there is no mystery ... The novel flickers between the horror of the situation and the romantic overlay with the stylized dizziness of a disco ball. The reader struggles, along with Vanessa, to make sense of what is happening ... One of the more radical aspects of the novel is that it maintains its ambiguities ... Very occasionally the writing veers toward clunkiness or overexplication, but at her best, Russell probes deftly at the disorienting paradoxes inherent in these relationships ... It is difficult to write about this subject without falling into predictable tropes or clichés, but Russell manages a brutal originality. In an era of neat furious accounts of victimhood, this novel stands out for elusiveness, its exceedingly complex, inventive, resourceful examination of harm and power.
... exquisite, often nauseating ... isn’t just fighting the infection; it’s tracing the pathogen back to its source, tracing its spread from unsuspecting woman to unsuspecting woman ... simultaneously specific and universal ... anatomizes most sharply the rip in time that keeps women replaying and relitigating their own culpability in their assaults, especially when those violations happen behind the walls of an institution that vows to protect them ... Ultimately, what makes My Dark Vanessa so hypnotic is that it provides Vanessa with what so many abused women want — the chance to admit that they have desires too. Readers might hate her for what they see as her complicity, her refusal to take up the mantle of victimhood in a way they can easily sloganize. I don’t think she’d care.
Pearl-clutchers, take note: When it comes to sexuality and complex power dynamics, Russell pulls no punches. What you get is a raw, unflinching look at the ways we hold young girls responsible for the criminal actions of grown men and, even worse, how victims come to blame themselves ... Occasionally, she presents Vanessa in such a harsh light, some readers may be frustrated by our heroine, and that’s okay. Prepare to settle in and be ill at ease ... With Fiona Apple lyrics floating from the pages – a heady soundtrack for this discomforting tale – your beliefs will be challenged, you will feel helpless, angry and possibly a little depraved, but it will make you feel. A rarity these days ... You’ll want to make sure to carve out enough time before starting, because My Dark Vanessa is compulsive. I burned through the first half of the book in such a fever that I lost sleep, I missed meals. The climax, which seems inevitable, falls smack dab in the middle of the book, leaving the rest of the story to seep out, like stagnant air being let out of a balloon, but I think that’s exactly the point ... Witnessing Vanessa’s downward spiral, watching her strip away every layer of guilt and blame, exposing chronic wounds to bitter conditions, would be unbearable in less capable hands, but Russell manages to weave beautiful prose with gut-wrenching truth so deftly that even the most squeamish reader will not be able to stop themselves from wading into deeper water ... The genius of this book is what’s left unsaid, the deceptively simple nuance with which this difficult material is handled ... To call this book a 'conversation piece' or 'an important book' feels belittling, something reserved for female authors writing about the female experience. But this book is so much more than that. It’s a lightning rod. A brilliantly crafted novel, one that will stand against any of the celebrated tomes glorifying the over-sexualization of girls.
This is a pedagogical novel in more than one sense, a work of fiction that also wants to be a work of reference: here is how an abusive relationship develops between an insecure teenager and a sexual predator; here is why it sometimes takes years for a victim to tell her story; here is how institutions have failed to protect victims of sexual abuse; here is how buried trauma can affect a life. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched. Vanessa’s prolonged insistence that Strane isn’t a paedophile paedophile, or that if she agreed to spend the night at his house then it wasn’t rape rape, speaks to a wider culture of equivocation. Her eventual acceptance of what really took place banishes ambiguity and affirms the #MeToo movement’s simple politics of right and wrong. I read it with the sense of duty I reserve for learning about terrible things in the world ... the characters aren’t fictional so much as composites, even archetypes. I suspect many readers will find ‘eerie story similarities’ between My Dark Vanessa and other works of fiction and non-fiction, or anecdotes of people they know, or their own experiences .. But, like Vanessa, I also wanted some recognition that the sort of abuse she suffered doesn’t have to define a life completely.
My Dark Vanessa is a minefield in which language itself has been weaponized. Vanessa is both a smothering presence and a troubling void, a narrator who often feels disassociated from her own story ... To spend substantial time—roughly 350 pages—in the mind of a person defending the assault of an underage girl isn’t particularly pleasant. The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile. The answer may depend on the reader’s tolerance for a character so intent on defending her own damage ... Vanessa’s story veers so wildly between obsession and disgust, between her steadfast defenses of Strane and her flashes of insight ... To the reader, Strane is a textbook predator, his behavior so predictable it’s almost banal ... Nabokov...uses language so floral, so ornate, that the brutality of an adult raping a child is kept at a distance. Russell isn’t so generous. Vanessa’s description of the first time Strane violates her is written like an assault ... What makes other fictional narratives of teenage abuse more bearable...is that the person telling the story has enough distance and perception to be able to see what they’re really portraying. Vanessa is infinitely more challenging ... Is she a valuable [character], in the end? I still can’t decide.
Russell spools out her fractured narrative like a sort of feverish memory play, with Vanessa as the defiant, furious defender of something she still insists, even at 32, on labeling a romance. It's a tricky line to walk, strung somewhere between outrage and empathy, and My Dark Vanessa's workmanlike prose — no flights of Nabokovian fancy here — sometimes falters. But it's the kind that stays with you, too: the story of a girl whose life becomes the answer to a question she never really had a chance to refuse.
Russell cleverly lures us inside the labyrinth of the teenage mind—hot with hormonal turmoil, pushing boundaries, craving admiration, breaking rules and obsessing about sex ... The author skilfully reveals the contradictions of a teenager who can be simultaneously sexually mature and extremely vulnerable, highly intelligent and incapable of protecting herself ... The writing is dark, shocking, occasionally nauseating and will rightly be labelled 'brave.' Actually, you have to be pretty brave to read it ... This fast-paced, intelligent novel encapsulates the current zeitgeist in which earlier sexual mores are being re-evaluated and clearer boundaries laid down ... My Dark Vanessa’s greatest achievement is its clear-sighted exploration of the ambiguities inherent in abusive relationships.
... gripping from the first page ... That Vanessa is so intelligent and that her teacher is equally so, makes the read thoroughly interesting and entertaining ... Kate Elizabeth Russell writes so deftly that the reader is on the fence way too long, trying to give Strane a chance to be a human being with feet of clay ... The book presents a timely psychological journey that is difficult to reduce; Vanessa’s intimate thoughts and perceptions extend the complexity of this discussion. Through it all, the stain of a confused obsession emerges as the deep and lasting harm like a badly drawn tattoo you can never scrub off, no matter how hard you try.
Like Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, My Dark Vanessa deals with power, truth and the identity of a woman trying to reclaim a sense of self after sexual trauma. It packs a punch and will unearth difficult feelings in the reader, especially in its political message of questioning the public and the private sphere, asking who owns the right to feel indignant, how we re-paint victims who have already been painted by their experience. A sharp debut that tunnels through you.
Kate Elizabeth Russell's deeply affecting first novel...is a vivid account of the harm too often done to girls by men ... Russell won’t have the older Vanessa condescend to her younger self, nor will she obscure her innocence with hindsight. The writer demands that the reader witness the molestation as it is happening, and the story is stripped of either judgment or nostalgia ... Russell transforms emotion into words with remarkable precision ... What’s missing, without a reflective voice or the narrative authority of the past tense, is 'emotion recollected in tranquility,' the old Wordsworthian definition of poetry. There is no tranquility for this narrator ... While Russell is a sure-footed writer with keen powers of description (some of the best sequences detail Vanessa’s job as a file clerk and have nothing to do with sex or obsession), we are not treated to the transcendence that comes when experience is fully transformed into art. There is no childhood to lose because...here is no childhood described. Instead, we experience the loss as Vanessa does, without the bittersweetness of memory — a loss that is real and complete.
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a spate of new novels exploring the long term damage of sexual abuse ... Kate Elizabeth Russell's explosive debut now joins the line-up ... it is set apart from the pack on several counts: It's a page-turner structured to amp up suspense, but it's also self-consciously bookish, with frequent references to transgressive relationships in literature, including Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It features a lot of graphic sex, pretty much all of which is distasteful. And its narrator is not particularly likable ... My Dark Vanessa has clearly been worked and reworked to a fare-thee-well, but sometimes feels crafted to a fault. It's too long, and suffers from some serious overwriting, mostly involving Vanessa's attempts to describe her out-of-body sense of alienation at each of Shane's trespasses ... Even so, this upsetting novel, which powerfully unpacks so much about the trauma of abuse, victimhood, silencing, misplaced guilt, power, consent, and wayward desire, is a significant addition to the necessary reassessments and conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement.
While peering into the experience of a molested teenager can’t be described as enjoyable, it’s a credit to Kate Elizabeth Russell that her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, is as gripping as it is skin-crawling ... While the style of the book, written largely from the point of view of a teenager, at times feels reminiscent of teen fiction, the subject matter is cleverly handled.
Karen Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, is a dishy, dark, distracting work of commercial fiction — and an important addition to the literature of #metoo ... It’s still kind of amazing that #metoo ever happened, that as a society, we have finally been able to admit the invidiousness of the sexual power dynamic that runs all through our culture and lives. Nothing looks the same anymore. We’ll probably be reading other revisions of the Lolita" story, but My Dark Vanessa is a great place to start.
My Dark Vanessa sometimes reads like a thriller, especially as the behavior of both Strane and Vanessa becomes more unpredictable ... My Dark Vanessa benefits from the fact that it comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement. A character mentions a high-profile film director who 'enjoyed exposing himself to young actresses,' and Strane is undone partly through the power of social media. But even without its timeliness, Russell’s novel is a remarkably assured debut – direct in its handling of an emotionally charged subject, sly in the unreliability of its difficult yet likable protagonist. With any luck, it will not be two decades before we hear from Russell again.
Russell has clearly done her psychology homework on how sexual abuse transpires. Her storytelling is particularly strong when she shows how manipulation and coercion operate, and how predators intentionally choose isolated victims whose distress is unlikely to be noticed ... The reader is able to see heartbreaking truths that Vanessa can’t yet bear to look at, and this conflict is utterly gripping ... If there is a reading list for the #MeToo era, My Dark Vanessa deserves to be at the top of it.
Complex and haunted, Vanessa is a modern-day Dolores Haze ... Kate Elizabeth Russell has written a sensitive, heart-breaking companion to the Nabokov, retelling the relationship through the lens of the character whose voice matters the most, the young girl deemed a nymphet, a Lolita ... Ms. Russell tackles the hard questions in this searing depiction of the interior life of a woman who, while an adolescent, was groomed to satisfy the desires of an abuser, and whose life and outlook have been warped ever since. Ms. Russell is unafraid to delve into the hideous heart of human desire, and to frankly show how society demands too much of women and girls and too little of the men who prey on them ... essential reading.
Narrating in present tense, Vanessa is easy to sympathize with, and her story is hard to stop reading. On another level, Russell realistically portrays how this sort of thing could happen ... Empathetic, incendiary, and discussable.
As Vanessa slowly unpacks what happened, we see her youthful and ongoing denial, the impact of events on her still unsure self, how sedulous Strane was in drawing her in, how unabashed he remains, how much she needed and still needs to believe they had something special, and how she still takes Strane as a measure ... A deeply relevant debut that the author has been writing since age 16, drawing on her own experiences, and the reading enlightens even as it chills
Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder ... A gut-wrenching debut.
Russell offers readers an introspective narrative that fully captures the complexity and necessity of the #MeToo movement in her powerful debut ... Russell’s novel, alternating between past and present, presents a damning indictment of sexual predation, as she starkly elucidates the ways in which abuse robbed Vanessa not only of her childhood but also of her own once-promising future. It also prompts readers to interrogate their own assumptions about victimhood, consent, and agency. This is a frighteningly sharp debut.