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.