I never thought that I would experience yet another Lolita in my life. But My Dark Vanessa is a similar kind, because I found another Humbert Humbert in Jacob Strane and a Lo in Vanessa Wye. However, the two are different as they are alike. And this difference is what captured me and what made me want to read this debut novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Unlike in Nabakov’s Lolita, the story in My Dark Vanessa is narrated from the point of view of the “victim”, Vanessa. What is incredulous is that the “victim”, who we believe her to be, doesn’t admit to being one. To her, the affair with Jacob Strane, her English teacher, a man past 40, which she started at the age of 15 is a normal love affair! She scoffs at the idea of sexual abuse thinking it was love that drove them together. At the same time, however, she cannot deny the fact that the affair had an extremely negative impact on her life. She cannot deny that ever since she was expelled from the boarding school at the age of 16 after the administration got wind of her and Strane, her life has been going on a downhill path, that once a promising future, has become a bare survival. Vanessa is traumatized and she knows it deep inside, but she doesn’t want to admit it; too proud to open up, too proud to seek help.
Vanessa Wye exasperates you with her ridiculous utterance that she wasn’t abused, that what they shared was love, and that he asked for her permission before he physically touched her. This raises the question of consent. Can a 15 year old girl consent to a sexual relationship? Technically, no. But does that mean that she didn’t know what she wanted? Vanessa claims to have wanted to have sex with Strane. In fact, she even prepares for it by taking with her a seductive nightwear of her mother when she is down home for the holiday. She takes calculative measures for the encounters just like her abuser. From what she confesses throughout the story, her body desired his touch. The question is, however, even if the body wanted to be touched, the mind which allows the body to be touched is mature enough to know what she really wanted. In other words, does her mind is developed enough to know what she wants, even though her body yearns for it? This is a complicated question to which one cannot find a straight answer. And I felt that the issue of consent is one factor that the author wanted to bring to light.
The next point I wanted to take up is (I’m sure this was on the author’s mind as well) the fact that how protective are girls in the school environment. The boarding school which Vanessa attended was too eager to expel her and get over it. With the help of the abuser (who was too eager to save his skin), the administration had no scruple in framing Vanessa as a liar and expelling her from school. If that’s how a school behaves to safeguard its name from scandal, we have some serious thinking to do about the kind of administration that runs the school. Strane doesn’t stop with Vanessa, and he continues even long after. If the administration had bothered to perhaps investigate, the later disasters could have been avoided. Who can say who was abused before? Also, the other aspect is that even if the girls had told the truth, would they have been believed? Wouldn’t they have been disregarded and framed as liars, as deranged teenagers? Reading the story, this struck me deeply. Girls of that age are vulnerable, and the school has a duty in protecting them. And Vanessa was seriously let down by her school.
Of the pedophile, I will not waste too much of my words. He was a master manipulator who knew how to pick on the right prey. Vanessa was lonely and he played to that weak point. His constant utterances like “You’re the best, you have such great potential, you have a bright future ahead and sure to end in Grad school, etc, etc.” are just a mere pattern of speech with no meaning. But they are the very words a girl of 15 would want to hear, and she will take it to heart. She will worship the teacher like a dog worships his master and forever be grateful. Vanessa was exactly that, a kind of obedient dog who worshiped the ground her master walked.
Sexual abuse is the foremost theme of the novel, but My Dark Vanessa is also about the survival process of those victims of abuse. Vanessa had to walk a long dark path. Her life was a disappointment; she couldn’t raise herself to the level of her expectation. At the age of thirty-two, she was still struggling to come to terms with her life, fighting addiction, despising her job, disappointed in not being able to form new relationships. But the author shows us that she still has hope. Presently undergoing therapy for grief (following her father’s death), she finally opens up to her counselor about her past relationship with Strane and how it had affected her life. Her confession at some point that “if it wasn’t love, what was it?” finally explains why Vanessa defended Strane so passionately. She wanted to interpret the affair as one of love to avoid admitting her humiliation of being a “victim”, a pawn in a man’s game.
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel is one of the most thought-provoking contemporary writing that I’ve come across. It was sincerely written untainted with any personal judgment. I would have preferred a little more coherence in the flow of the story, but I greatly enjoyed her thematic expositions. She will be a contemporary author that most certainly will be on my radar.