With cover blurbs from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn and solid on-line buzz from a variety of reviewers, my expectations for Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa may have been a bit lofty.
Vanessa met Jacob Strane when she was in her teens and he was in his early thirties. At first, Vanessa found the fact that he was twice as old as she was a novelty, something to ponder to herself as she went through life at a private girl’s school. Estranged from her only friend during her first year over a conflict over a guy, Vanessa falls under Strane’s influence and is slowly manipulated into a relationship with the older man. And yet, despite all of Strane’s abuses (and there are many), Vanessa staunchly refuses to see herself as a victim — even years later as Strane’s pattern of behavior becomes public and more and more victims began to go public with their stories.
There are moments when Vanessa is darkly hypnotic and utterly chilling. Some of what Strane does and his manipulation of and damage to Vanessa is far more horrifying than anything Stephen King has ever or will ever write. And then there are moments where you just want to reach into the novel and tells get Vanessa to wake up and to take a bit more power over her life and herself. I can tell you that reading this book as the father of a little girl, I was horrified to see Vanessa preyed upon by this authority figure — and then to see how long it takes her to realize just how dark and disturbing her relationship with Strane really is. As the novel unfolds, the relationship takes on a type of co-dependent enabling of each other.
It would be easy to look at this novel as Lolita told from the girl’s point of view. And Strane does wield Lolita as a weapon in his seduction of Vanessa. But there’s something darker and more sinister at work here.
This isn’t necessarily an enjoyable novel, but it’s a compelling one about real-life monsters and the damage they can inflict in their wake. However, I can’t help but feel the novel might have benefited from one more edit as there’s a long section of the middle third of the book where it feels like the book and Vanessa are just reading water. Or maybe that was the point and I just missed it.