Two days into May, and I’d already read a book not on my May TBR – My Dark Vanessa. I hadn’t actually heard of it until my friend gleefully showed me a screenshot of her incoming Waterstones order. I looked up My Dark Vanessa, became hooked by the blurb and immediately ordered a copy for myself. Less than a week later, here we are.
Plot summary for My Dark Vanessa:
Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when she first had sex with her English teacher.
She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.
Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that.
Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.
Star Rating for My Dark Vanessa: * * * * (four stars)
The first thing I have to say about My Dark Vanessa… is that I don’t have much to say about it. I have a lot of thoughts about the factual things that happened, as the very nature of the story makes them shocking and interesting, and Vanessa’s arguably misguided perceptions of it as an adult give it a unique twist that’s fascinating to read. My friend and I ended up unintentionally buddy reading it, texting each other with our amazement at each new development.
But to talk about those points would be spoilery. And now, I sit down to write this review, I realise that I remember almost nothing about the prose, the format or the style. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, it clearly wasn’t all that memorable. But it’s also possible that I was so drawn into the story that I wasn’t paying attention to how it was crafted.
It is a believable story, however, and perhaps that’s a credit to the writing in itself. Whilst it never felt purposefully sensational, or shock-driven, there were times when I felt really angry at what was happening. My most incandescent moments weren’t even at the physical abuse, it was targeted at the more subtle aspects; the manipulation, the gaslighting, the gentle threats. And, for context, I’m a Child Protection solicitor. I don’t shock easily.
I’ve read Notes on a Scandal and Tampa, which also deal with teacher-student relationships. Whilst these both deal with female adult/male student abuse, which society tends to find less abhorrent ( which, for clarity, I am not condoning), I still found that My Dark Vanessa was the more realistic and galling of the three.
I think that’s something to do with Vanessa’s insight, or lack thereof. It’s really very cleverly done and quite nuanced. She has complete factual recollection of everything that happened to her – but she has convinced herself that it wasn’t abuse; she was different and her teacher loved her. Despite lovely little nuggets like her teacher continuing to penetrate her as she cried.
I gave My Dark Vanessa four stars, so I clearly liked it a lot. I’m not even disputing that rating – I enjoyed (possibly the wrong word) reading it and it’s likely I will reread it in the future. It’s just that, for a book about the sexual abuse of a child, it’s surprisingly unmemorable and I can’t really say I was left reeling.