“What kind of monster,” a Facebook commenter asks on the first page of My Dark Vanessa, “could do that to a child?” It’s an instantly provocative question, which Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel—one of the splashier literary debuts of the year—immediately begins to complicate: The gulf between the person telling the story and the reader receiving it may feel as unconquerable as the Mariana Trench. Vanessa, who is 15 when she first meets the English teacher Jacob Strane and 32 when Strane is implicated in a string of abuse allegations, is a fiendishly difficult, almost willfully blinkered narrator. Her account of what happened between her and Strane flips disconcertingly between the rote patter of a cult victim and flashes of acute insight.
“I was the first student who put the thought in his head,” is how she characterizes the “teacher-student romance” between them, as glassy and automated as a Manson family member. It’s easy to see that she’s parroting Strane’s words. “There was something about me that made it worth the risk. I had an allure that drew him in.”
I, me, I. Vanessa’s solipsism can be overwhelming, more so because Russell allows the reader to see what Vanessa can’t: This story is about damage, not love. Strane is a pedophile, and Vanessa is his victim. I can’t, despite Vanessa’s insistence, bring myself to describe what happens in the novel between Strane and Vanessa the way she does, as a “relationship,” or a “romance,” or “destiny.” But Vanessa refuses to categorize it as abuse. “In someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute,” she argues. “It swallows up everything that happened.” 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.