Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell Paws For Reaction
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I knew before I finished the first chapter that My Dark Vanessa was going to be difficult to read. At the same time, before I finished the first chapter I was sure I'd be engulfed by it. It wasn't because of the author's disclaimer at the beginning, informing the reader the events in the book were not a truth-telling of her past at boarding school or the vague mention of things in 'the news' clearly referring to the #MeToo movement. It's been a long time since I've been compelled to highlight a passage in a novel, but I found myself running a highlighter across the page, soaking the sentences that made me feel gutted in a bright colour. I could tell that Vanessa was going to crush me.

My Dark Vanessa, the book some are calling the most controversial book of the year, hit me in a way I wasn't expecting, deep down in my darkest self where all of my shame and regrets are buried. I'm not saying I can personally relate to Vanessa's illicit relationship with her teacher. But I can relate to being in a one-sided relationship when someone takes and takes and takes and I give, only to be left alone and longing in the wreckage. I can relate to being coaxed into a relationship that wasn't as advertised, and being gaslighted to keep me there and explain away my feelings. I can relate to not being able to let go of a toxic man, to revel in the good parts and feed on them, addicted to the pleasure and ignoring the pain. To not being able to forget and move on. In that way, I can relate to Vanessa- to the confusion of not really seeing your relationship for what it is. For not wanting to see- refusing to see.

At 15 years old Vanessa enters a relationship with a teacher nearly three times her age. The book goes back and forth between her past and her present- when she is confronted by a news story about him abusing another student. Vanessa's journey to acceptance of her relationship as 'abuse' propels the story forward, because, like many victims, she has a hard time differentiating hazy memories from harsh realities. 

We wore the same blinders, her and I, shielding us from real life. Vanessa's justifications of abuse are shocking- but not uncommon. My Dark Vanessa is unsettling. Stephen King's blurb inside the front jacket says it best: "My Dark Vanessa is a hard story to read and a harder one to put down." The book is a dark, raw, and relentlessly honest portrayal of the different perspectives on trauma. Each traumatic experience is yours and yours alone, to feel, understand, and revel in. My Dark Vanessa is not afraid to force-feed you truths that are difficult to swallow. It's essential reading. I feel like we will be talking about this book for years to come.

My Dark Vanessa is a remarkable debut and I can't wait for Kate Elizabeth Russell to follow it. For me, reading it was in some ways a cathartic experience. I feel like I was able to unpack a lot of emotional baggage that I had buried deep under piles of clothes, like the disaster in Vanessa's dirty room. Though our experiences were different, our reactions to trauma are similar. Read this book. It won't be easy- but the best things never are.

Check out more books on my Summer Reading List!

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Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell Paws For Reaction summer reading list

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