My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is one of the books on the shortlist for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize 2021, the winner of which will be announced later today. You can watch the award ceremony live here. My thanks to Bei Guo at Midas PR for offering me the opportunity to read one of the shortlisted books.
About the Dylan Thomas Prize
Launched in 2006, the annual Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize is one of the most prestigious awards for young writers, aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide. It celebrates and nurtures international literary excellence.
Worth £20,000, it is one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes as well as one of the world’s largest literary prizes for young writers. Awarded for the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under, the Prize celebrates the international world of fiction in all its forms including poetry, novels, short stories and drama
The prize is named after the Swansea-born writer, Dylan Thomas, and celebrates his 39 years of creativity and productivity. One of the most influential, internationally-renowned writers of the mid-twentieth century, the prize invokes his memory to support the writers of today and nurture the talents of tomorrow
About the Book
Vanessa Wye was fifteen years old when she first had sex with her English teacher.
Now the teacher, Jacob Strane, has been accused of sexual abuse by another former student, and a journalist has asked Vanessa to contribute to a story about him. But no one seems to understand that what Vanessa and Strane had together wasn’t abuse. It was love.
Format: Paperback (384 pages) Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication date: 21st January 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Thriller
Find My Dark Vanessa on Goodreads
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The book is narrated in the first person and switches between two timelines. In the earlier timeline, set in 2000, the reader witnesses the beginnings of Vanessa Wye’s relationship with Jacob Strane, her English teacher at Browick, a boarding school. In the Afterword, the author writes that, after discarding many earlier drafts of the book, “I unapologetically centred Vanessa in a first person, present-tense narrative, and by doing so I forced the reader to experience the story through her voice”. The later timeline charts the impact of the relationship over the following seven years.
The book raises all sorts of questions about abuse of power, the insidious nature of grooming and the need for safeguarding. The latter seems to be sadly lacking at Browick despite the presence of ‘dorm parents’ and counsellors.
Although sometimes involving subterfuge, Vanessa’s actions always seem instinctive, albeit naive. On the other hand, Strane’s come across as premeditated, even practised. For example, his asking for permission as things progress from kisses to more intimate contact (in scenes that I found disturbing to read). They might be sincere but, as the reader suspects, are more likely to be a ruse to make Vanessa believe she’s in control, that she’s not being coerced. Likewise, his statements that he thinks about her constantly and misses her when they cannot meet are surely uttered knowing these are just the sort of things a lonely, friendless girl would want to hear. Similarly, his lavish praise of her work.
At times, it felt almost voyeuristic watching him manipulate Vanessa into doing what he wants. For Vanessa, Strane’s attention gives her a feeling of value she otherwise lacks. ‘He thinks about me. He thinks about me so much, certain things remind him of me. That means something.’ Oh, Vanessa, it means nothing only that his manipulation is working.
Vanessa’s growing disillusionment and eventual realisation about the nature of her relationship with Strane is hard to witness. As she reflects, ‘How easy it is to be tricked into building a narrative out of air, out of nothing’. Although one might expect Vanessa to feel solidarity towards the other abused women as more cases come to light and to be prepared to share her story for ‘the greater good’, she continues to feels protective towards Strane, having swallowed the lie that she is as complicit in their relationship as him, if not more so. In this version of reality, he simply could not help himself because it was she who ‘brought out the darkness in him’.
My Dark Vanessa is a compelling but, at times, disturbing book to read. Having said that, it’s also a deeply impressive and confident debut. It must take some courage as an author to tackle such controversial subject matter, especially in your first novel. Since the author reveals in the Afterword that the book is the product of eighteen years work, it is clearly a subject she feels strongly about. I can understand why My Dark Vanessa has divided readers but also why it has earned a place on the shortlist for such a prestigious prize.
In three words: Unsettling, provocative, compelling
Try something similar: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
About the Author
Kate Elizabeth Russell is originally from eastern Maine. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kansas and an MFA from Indiana University.
My Dark Vanessa is her first novel. (Photo credit: Author website)