My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell

Reviewed By
Andrea Thompson

The insidious nature of grooming and the environment in which it needs to support its secretive and incremental processes is a topic rarely encountered in fiction.  A common crime, yet rarely recognized as such by the victim or those who may witness its purposeful impact.  Dark Vanessa is a fictional account of the circumstances in which a teenage girl falls victim to the predatory behaviour of an experienced padophile, her much admired high school English teacher.

In the year 2000, fifteen year old Vanessa is a new student, and new resident, of a prestigious private boarding school.  After a falling out with her best friend, Vanessa is feeling alone and disinterested with how the rest of her high school years may go.  Her English teacher Jacob Strane identifies both the talent and the drifting nature of Vanessa, heaping praise on the teen as the one student he believes has a future in creative writing.  The abuse begins with just a light touch on Vanessa’s knee, in class. 

Withdrawn from college, Vanessa is ostracized from her school community which now believes that the teen is responsible for false allegations of abuse against one of their most respected teachers.  Vanessa and Strane are the only two that know the truth.  The subtle manner in which Strane manipulates Vanessa into effectively taking the fall for him only becomes years later when Vanessa has cause to reassess what really happened to her when she was so young, naïve and vulnerable to the attentions of a man old enough to be her father. When Vanessa is in her early thirties, long rejected by Strane as she aged out of her young adult years, other former students of Strane find each other and Vanessa is considered key to their cause.

My Dark Vanessa repeatedly references the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokovas as being part of the great American literary canon, with the inference that the controversial 1953 work may have been regarded as some sort of code of conduct for men of a certain ilk.  Not a revelation.  Used as a grooming tool by Strane, Lolita is the framework piece in which Vanessa tries to orientate herself, her own experiences becoming something more lofty and noble when she considers those that may have come before her, if only in fiction.

The observations of how society has always regarded the safety and value of its children are as insightful as they are disturbing.  These ruminations come from Vanessa only, as this novel is written entirely from the perspective of Vanessa as she matures from her mid teens to her early thirties. My Dark Vanessa is an incredibly detailed account of one person needing many more years of mature adult awareness to be able to process what it was that she actually experienced as a child in the hands of a calculating sexual predator. 

The novel does not play the blame game, and offers up insights of such brutal clarity about what is required to facilitate such predatory behaviours that it seems incredible that anyone in the sphere of a child could be in the dark as to what child is experiencing. It’s almost a certainty that many readers will recognize aspects of their own younger years or those of their peers in My Dark Vanessa.  What is an underage girl? A child.


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.

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