Lolita Told in Reverse
It was fairly recent when Hollywood was rocked by a major controversy. Serious allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were hurled against some of the prominent names in the movie industry. It started with one expose that eventually branched out. Underneath that glitter and glamour, a grim picture of Hollywood begun to surface with every serious allegation. In its wake, the #MeToo movement started to take shape as women across the globe started to come out and share their experiences in the hopes of empowering women and exposing sex crimes committed by powerful and prominent men.
The rise of the #MeToo movement inevitably made its presence felt in the world of literature. Two of the representative works of the movement, Anna Burns’ Milkman and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments romped off to Man Booker Prize wins in successive years. This year, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, stirred quite the pre-publication and post-publication buzz, not only because of the sensitivity and the weight of the subject it deals.
My Dark Vanessa opens up in 2017 when the titular Vanessa is already 32-years-old. While going through the motions of her quotidian life, she received an invitation to expose her former English teacher, Jacob Strane. Strane has just been accused of sexual abuse by a former student. Fervently believing that Vanessa herself was a victim by Strane, the whistle-blower vehemently tried to win over Vanessa. But Vanessa was adamant. She refused to acknowledge that she is a victim.
“Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else’s mouth the word turns ugly and absolute. It swallows up everything that happened.” ~ Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa
The timeline then shifts to 2000, when the fifteen-year old Vanessa Wye. The most pivotal moment of her life happened when she transferred to a Maine boarding school. Unable to establish any connections with her peers, she found herself alone, an awkward outlier. In her loneliness, she started pining for her 42-year-old English literature teacher, Jacob Strane. Strane is neither young nor attractive but Vanessa was pulled in by a magnetic field, a mystique, which she strongly credited as the idea of first love.
In her debut novel, Russell explores extensively the definition of consent and the nature of being a victim through Vanessa. Despite being visibly groomed by Strane for a sexual relationship, Vanessa adamantly refused to identify herself as the victim of a sharp-witted sexual predator. She had a skewed view of her situation – she is not the victim of sexual abuse because, despite her tender age of fifteen, she consciously walked into the bizarre and complicated relationship with Strane.
In presenting Vanessa’ complicated thought-process, Russell induced the readers to step into the vast psychological dimensions of the teenage mind. The novel brilliantly depicted the tumultuous but critical juncture in our lives, from the incessant yearning for attention and admiration to the hormonal and sexual overdrives to the proverbial teenage rebellion. The gullibility and vulnerability of youth was also vividly painted into the rich text. The relationship begun with a simple albeit malicious touch to the knee which rapidly progressed into surreptitious kissing, then sex.
The sexual act itself, however, was not the novel’s entree – it was too ubiquitous to spend a couple more pages. Like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita which Strane symbolically handed over to Vanessa, the novel focused on the intangible and the psychological aspects. The impact of the unhealthy relationship to Vanessa’s life was also woven into the tapestry of the novel. Vanessa exchange what was one a promising career in writing with a forgettable job at a hotel desk. She blunt trauma of her past let her to casual encounters with older men and to substance abuse. Despite the years passing by, Vanessa and Strane remained acquainted and they would meet from time-to-time.
“Break his heart? I try to imagine myself having that power, holding his heart, mine to abuse, but even when I picture it pulsing and pumping in my hands, it’s still the boss of me, leading me around, jerking this way and that with me clinging and unable to let go.” ~ Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa
The pandemonium that Vanessa’ life ending up being was the antithesis of Strane’s well-organized life. While Vanessa had to struggle with the shame of the scandal, Strane ended up unscathed. This underlined what are already generally established facts – sexual predators, often times, end up scoff free and their victims, especially when they expose their experiences, end up with all the criticism and the prejudices of a society that remains largely patriarchal.
If there is one word that characterized the text, it would be obsession. Strane has a virile obsession with nubile teenagers. Vanessa was obsessing with the idea of an illicit love affair, of teenage independence. Vanessa also ended up with an obsession on Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial work, Lolita. As her fondness with Lolita and Humbert grew, Vanessa begun to merge her own memories with theirs. Taken from a different vantage point, My Dark Vanessa can be viewed as an astute reversal of Lolita, narrated from the female character’s point of view.
Readers would typically expect the writer to paint a main character, especially a victim of sexual abuse, to be at least likeable. That is not the case with Russell and My Dark Vanessa. Rather than earning the reader’s sympathy and understanding, Vanessa inspired frustration, bordering to disappointment. Her story and her complex personality was not meant to be studied and read along with the paradigm. Sexual abuse and sexual harassment are vast dimensions as well, not to be viewed as black and white. Not every victim’s story can be easily shoved down everyone’s throat.
Russell’s writing powerfully captured a painful story. She used to maximum effect the shock in order to shed light on abusive relationships and the unheard stories within the “safe” premises of a school campus. She captured the classic story of a victim fervently protecting the man who repeatedly abused her. It was a heartbreaking experience, witnessing the rampant rape of girl who was blinded by her innocent yearning for affection from a monstrous man. The novel also underlined the pivotal role social media plays in uniting victims. Russell was cognizant that it is a powerful tool in spreading advocacy and raising awareness.
“He touched me first, said he wanted to kiss me, told me he loved me. Every first step was taken by him. I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge. But maybe he has to believe that. Maybe there’s a whole list of things he has to believe.” ~ Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa
My Dark Vanessa is a story that required an indomitable courage to tell and a story that the world needs to hear. It requires the same amount of courage to immerse in it. Hearing and reading stories from the #MeToo movement is always a transcending and heartbreaking experience. The movement gave voices to those muted by their traumatic experience. It is shifting the paradigms, altering the natural flow of things. As each brick that kept the patriarchy sturdy for years is being dismantled, the ugly realities of male fragility is being exposed.
There is one word that summarily captures the essence of My Dark Vanessa. That word is sensational for it is not a story taken from your typical mold. Written with acuity and sharpness, it placed the proverbial microscope on a seminal movement sweeping the contemporary period. With Vanessa’s story culminating in 2017, a year before the rise of the #MeToo movement, Russell is subtly bridging stories of the victims to a rising global movement that is also raising awareness on the reassessment of archaic sexual praxis in order to define boundaries and limitations.
Russell was a victim of sexual abuse herself albeit she refuses to regale the public with the details. In compelling victims to relive their stories, old wounds are reopened and past traumas re-experienced. Whatever Russell’s motivation maybe, My Dark Vanessa is a redoubtable tale that will resonate well beyond our time. It was relentless in its intent, clear-sighted in its vision, and impeccable in its execution.
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 29%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
While researching for books to be published during the year to include in my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward to List, one of the titles that keep on appearing is Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa which deals with a very sensitive but time subject. Despite the controversy that surrounded it, I didn’t hesitate in including the book in my list. The moment I managed to avail a copy of the book, I didn’t hesitate in reading it immediately. It went beyond what I expected and then more.
P.S. I do have a funny experience. While reading the book, I was getting the undercurrents of Lolita and was planning to incorporate it in my book review (this one). Out of the blue, Lolita does actually makes its presence felt in the story! I was caught off guard when Russell made a direct reference. My next book review will be on Vladimir Nabokov’s powerful, albeit controversial, work. Do watch out for it.
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 372
Genre: Psychological Fiction
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse y a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager – and who professed to worship only her – may be different from what she has always believed?
About the Author
Kate Elizabeth Russell was born in 1984 in eastern Maine.
Russell was raised in the town of Clifton in eastern Maine. She attended John Bapst Memorial High School in neighboring city of Bangor. She graduated in 2002 before moving to Farmington, Maine to pursue her degree at the University of Maine. She graduated in 2006 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Russell earned her Masters of Fine Arts from Indiana University and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Kansas.
Russell’s literary career begun with the publication of her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa. It was an instant bestseller despite the sensitive and dark subject it covers. The book is set to be translated into over twenty-five languages.
She is currently residing in Madison, Wisconsin.