Right from the beginning, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, pulls one into an introspective mood and compels one not only to look within oneself, but search for the truth of one’s life in so many different ways.

Vanessa has spent the better part of her life believing that her relationship — she was only 15 years old when she became entangled with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane — was based on love and mutual desire. Many young girls find themselves attracted to their teachers, sometimes male and sometimes female. One has heard many stories of romances between students and teachers, and there have been many instances of teachers marrying their students. There are also many cases of teachers forcing themselves on to their students, sometimes blackmailing them, sometimes manipulating them into granting them sexual favours in return for good grades.

Mr Jacob Strane has his own peculiar way of winning over young, romantic Vanessa: he uses poetry and literature. He offers her books to read, then he discusses those books with her. One book he presents her with is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the classic, iconic story of a young girl abused by a much older man.

Vanessa is obsessed with the novel. However, she sees herself not as the abused child, but as a woman who holds power over the man who is her seducer. Nabokov’s Lolita is repulsed by her abuser; she sees Humbert Humbert as someone from whom she has to escape. But Vanessa makes herself believe that her relationship is love, and it takes her more than 17 years to understand what she has gone through.

The novel opens in the year 2017, when the #MeToo movement has erupted all over the world: “For the past month, something’s been gaining momentum, a wave of women outing men as harassers, assaulters. It’s mostly celebrities who have been targeted — musicians, politicians, movie stars — but less famous men have been named, too. No matter their background, the accused go through the same steps. First, they deny everything. Then, as it becomes clear the din of accusations isn’t going away, they resign from their jobs in disgrace and issue a statement of vague apology that stops short of admitting wrongdoing. Then the final step: they go silent and disappear. It’s been surreal to watch it play out day after day, these men falling so easily.”

A semi-autobiographical debut novel explores the psychology of the survivor of an abusive relationship and the process of coming to terms with the truth

Among the rising tide of such accusations, Taylor, a former student at Vanessa’s school, accuses Strane of sexual abuse and brings the case to court. Taylor reaches out to Vanessa, requesting her to join in. A string of abuse allegations have been brought out against Strane and Vanessa has to make some very difficult choices.

Will she also speak out against the abuse that she had faced, but never told anyone about? Is she ready to face her truth, or will she continue to believe — as she has done all her life — that this relationship was what she herself desired? That she was in love with Strane and he was in love with her, that this was a romantic sexual relationship and not an abusive sexual relationship? Was she raped at the age of 15 by a 42-year-old paedophile? Can she bear to face the truth about herself, her life and the man who has been the most important person in her life?

The novel moves back and forth between 2017 and 2000, when Vanessa first met and fell in love with Mr Strane at Browick Boarding School. Strane makes her feel special, making her believe that the two of them have some affinity that must remain their secret. He manipulates her, both emotionally and sexually, in such an amazingly psychologically convincing way that she is made to believe that her seduction was not forced, but was something that she desired, even though she realises that “Every first step was taken by him.”

When it dawns on her that she might not be the first student Strane has developed a sexual relationship with, she demands to know: “‘What about you? Have you, with another student?’

“‘Do you think I have?’ he asks.

“I look up, caught off-guard. I don’t know what I think. I know what I want to believe, what I have to believe, but I have no idea how those things align with what might’ve happened in all the years before me. He’s been a teacher for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

“Strane watches as I grapple for words, a smile creeping across his face. Finally, he says, ‘The answer is no. Even if I had moments of desire, it never would’ve seemed worth the risk. Not until you [came] along.’”

This is how he makes her feel special; he gives her the attention that she — as a young, insecure teenager — is seeking. But even when she realises she isn’t the only student he has had a relationship with, she lives in denial. She lies to other people and she lies to herself.

This aspect of her character, exposing her vulnerability, makes her all the more endearing to the reader. Is it possible that the man who was her first love, her first lover, who professed to worship her and only her, was not the man she always believed him to be?

Vanessa has been seeing a therapist. When confronted by a journalist who wants her to corroborate Taylor’s accusations against Strane, she is at a loss. Should she tell the truth that she has never admitted to herself all these years and back up Taylor’s story? She seeks advice from her therapist, Ruby:

“‘I just want to know if you think I should.’

“‘I think it would cause you severe stress,’ Ruby says. ‘I’d worry the symptoms you described would become even more intense to the point where it would be difficult for you to function.’

“‘But I’m talking on a moral level. Because isn’t it supposed to be worth all the stress? That’s what people keep saying, that you need to speak out no matter the cost.’

“‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘That’s wrong. It’s a dangerous amount of pressure to put on someone dealing with trauma.’

 “‘Then why do they keep saying it? Because it’s not just this journalist. It’s every woman who comes forward. But if someone doesn’t want to come forward and tell the world every bad thing that’s happened to her, then she’s what? Weak? Selfish?’”

The novel moves between Vanessa’s past and her present life, her memories and her trauma, her youth and her questioning, self-doubting present. It is a novel about rape, about consent, about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, about the female agency to say no, about how abuse can be romanticised and about how difficult it is to speak out.

It is a novel the author admits is her own story. It is about Vanessa Wye who was just a girl, a girl who was raped and had to live with it all her life because, “Not that we were helpless by choice, but that the world forced us to be. Who would have believed us, who would have cared?”

The reviewer is a performing artist and cultural activist

My Dark Vanessa
By Kate Elizabeth Russell
HarperCollins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008342258
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 30th, 2021

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