My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell Review

Genre: Adult, Literary Fiction

Release Date: 10th March 2020

Publisher: William Morrow

Add on: The StorygraphGoodreads

Buy from: WaterstonesBlackwellsBook DepositoryAmazon

Russell has the kind of writing that I just clicked with straight away. From the first page, I was in, I was sold, I was ready to steam through this book. It’s so engaging – prose that is tight enough to flow easily, with lines that make you suddenly stop and have to catch your breath. I definitely found myself being dragged back to the book when I had to put it down, craving that next breathless moment. It’s impressive for what could be considered a rather quiet and subtle story. It doesn’t rely on action to propel you forward, the characters and the writing do that just fine on their own.

“I just feel . . .” I press the heels of my hands into my thighs. “I can’t lose the thing I’ve held on to for so long. You know?” My face twists up from the pain of pushing it out. “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”

One thing I loved was the use of the dual timeline. For me, it was another layer of muscle behind the punch that this book delivers. To read from fifteen-year-old Vanessa with all of her naivety and confusion, then to read the next chapter from 32 year-old Vanessa, was so impactful. It allows you to see what the trauma and abuse she suffered as a teenager will culminate to, before you’ve gotten to witness the events themselves. To watch teenage Vanessa build up to what you know she will become is heartbreaking. The dual timeline was just such an effective technique to show that the book isn’t just about the traumatic events themselves, it’s about the impact they have, and the long-lasting damage they do.

That being said, the scenes of sexual assault and grooming in the book are very explicit, but I think they were handled well. Vanessa rejects all notion of her being a victim and refuses to believe that Strane was an abuser, though her wavering over the latter confuses her. Abuse and power is wrapped up in a perceived love and naivety, then warped further by time and memory. Because of these entanglements, the story isn’t as straight-forward as it first may seem, and therefore is more realistic because of it.

That doesn’t retract from the fact that reading about Vanessa’s experiences as a teenager was extremely difficult. Because of the first person narrative, the scenes of sexual assault and grooming are overlayed with her confusion and desperation and fear, which made those chapters that much harder to get through.

The reason it was so upsetting was because of how real it felt to me. When I was reading, I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction, because Vanessa reads so realistically. The events of the book were also so realistic in that not every moment was traumatic. There were light moments, moments of tenderness and compassion, moments that endear the reader very fleetingly towards a character we despise. Just one line or figure of speech, or the way Vanessa confessed her feelings to us, makes you almost question yourself. Russell cleverly gives us very brief flashes of these moments, until you almost stumble into the trap that Vanessa fell into, before you recognise the gaslighting and abuse that comes soon after.

“I had no reason to care about rape then – I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved – but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grown up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”

The reviews for this book are almost all extremely positive, the one sticking point with some people being the ending. Personally, I loved the ending. It would be easy to end the book differently, to risk being preachy and to wrap up an otherwise distorted and ugly book into a neat little bow, but Russell didn’t. I think it was a brave choice and one that made the book that more impactful and authentic. It really demonstrates how there is no one right way to work through trauma, and how non-linear and complicated recovery is.

Overall, this book is a powerhouse, and I was engrossed in every page.

If you like:

  • Dual timelines.
  • Themes exploring trauma.
  • Books that will challenge you.
  • Literary themes in your books.

This is the book for you!

If you don’t like:

  • Books that don’t wrap up neatly.
  • Sexual assault, grooming, rape, paedophilia trigger warnings.

Then maybe give it a little more thought before picking this one up.


Have you read My Dark Vanessa? Let me know in a comment and we can chat!

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