#BookReview My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell #SUDTP21 @dylanthomprize @MidasPR

Dylan Thomas Prize 2021My 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

My Dark VanessaAbout 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.

Wasn’t it?

Format: Paperback (384 pages)        Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication date: 21st January 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Thriller

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My Review

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

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Kate Elizabeth Russell

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)

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#BookReview A Hundred Million Years and a Day by Jean-Baptiste Andrea @BelgraviaB

A Hundred Million Years and A DayAbout the Book

When he hears a story about a huge dinosaur fossil locked deep inside an Alpine glacier, university professor Stan finds a childhood dream reignited. Whatever it takes, he is determined to find the buried treasure.

But Stan is no mountaineer and must rely on the help of old friend Umberto, who brings his eccentric young assistant, Peter, and cautious mountain guide Gio. Time is short: they must complete their expedition before winter sets in. As bonds are forged and tested on the mountainside, and the lines between determination and folly are blurred, the hazardous quest for the Earth’s lost creatures becomes a journey into Stan’s own past.

Format: Paperback (176 pages)  Publisher: Gallic Books
Publication date: 7th May 2021 Genre: Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

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My Review

‘It’s true that a story often begins with a road, but I wish I knew what made mine so tortuous.’

The book opens with Stan’s poignant childhood memory of returning home after school, seeing the closed shutters of a bedroom window and realising, even as a six year old, that he should not disturb his mother. ‘In such moments she needed darkness, and darkness alone.’ The reasons for this will gradually become apparent.

Stan’s discovery near his farmland home of a fossil – a trilobite – awakens an interest in palaeontology. ‘It was three hundred million years old, and I was six.’ It’s an interest that is encouraged by his mother but discouraged by his bully of a father (known as the Commander) who desires Stan to take over the family business.

Moving ahead forty years to 1954 and Stan is now a Professor of Palaeontology in Paris. He has never forgotten the story of an old man’s discovery of a dinosaur fossil in a cave within a glacier in the Alps. Finding the site has become an obsession. Along with Umberto, a friend and colleague of many years, Umberto’s assistant Peter, and local guide Gio, the four men embark on the expedition of a lifetime. (There is another member of the group but I’ll leave you to read the book to find out more about him!)

I loved the way each of the men were fully rounded characters.  Umberto is a giant of a man with a ‘good, big, stone soul’.  When it comes to excavation he has ‘magic in his hands’ able to gently release ‘time’s grip’ on a fossil. His loyalty to Stan means leaving personal commitments back home. Gio’s instinct for changing weather conditions and his knowledge of the mountains is unparalleled.  However, he also knows only too well what dangers they hide. Peter is described as having a ‘genius for the absurd’ which will be demonstrated all too clearly.

I admired the way the author explored the dynamics between the men, especially as summer gives way to autumn and every day seems to present a new obstacle to overcome in order to achieve their objective.  The frustration and anger that festers beneath the surface is vividly brought to life in a memorable paragraph delivered in stream of consciousness style.

Another striking aspect of the book is its use of anthropomorphism so that even the weather seems to exhibit a life of its own.  For example, autumn is described as ‘prowling at the edge of the plateau… a beast of flesh and claws’.  As weeks turn to months it becomes akin to a battle of wits between the men and the glacier, as if the glacier is actively seeking to thwart their efforts.  It certainly feels that way to Stan.

When winter truly arrives, every day, every hour even, becomes a struggle to survive and retain a grip on sanity. I really felt I was there on the mountain alongside Stan but, of course, invisible to him, which makes his feelings of loneliness and attempts to ward off madness all the more poignant. At one point he observes, ‘I am surrounded by millions and millions of cubic metres, acres, tons of nothingness, void, absence’.

Interspersed with the story of the expedition are Stan’s memories of events earlier in his life: memories of rejection, loss, cruelty and violence.  However, Stan’s history of misreading situations or misinterpreting the feelings of others made we wonder how much I could truly trust his viewpoint.  The author challenged me to think about Stan’s real motivation. Is it the professional acclaim that will come from the discovery of possibly a new species of dinosaur, the achievement of a long-held dream, or a belated attempt to prove to his father that he is not the failure and weakling he was accused of being?

Sam Taylor’s translation expertly showcases the author’s wonderful turns of phrase. For example, the description of the valley from which the group start their climb as being an ‘eternal vendetta between stone and water’.  Or when, later in the book, the men awake to a heavy snowfall that finds them in snow up to their chests, the scene is likened to a ‘polar morning in Pompeii: our torsos floating on an ocean of powder, statues lost at sea’.

The low page count of A Hundred Million Years and a Day belies the power of the story it contains. As is often the case, the best things do come in small packages. My thanks to Isabelle Flynn at Gallic Books for my review copy, published today in a new paperback edition.

In three words: Powerful, moving, immersive

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Jean-Baptiste AndreaAbout the Author

Jean-Baptiste Andrea was born in 1971 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and grew up in Cannes. Formerly a director and screenwriter, he published his first novel, Ma Reine, in 2017. It won twelve literary prizes including the Prix du Premier Roman and the Prix Femina des Lycéens. (Photo credit: Publisher author page)

About the Translator

Sam Taylor is an author and former correspondent for The Observer. His translations include Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Leila Slimani’s Lullaby and Maylis de Kerengal’s The Heart, for which he won the French-American Foundation Translation Prize.