Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

Serena Strickland is a GP working in North Devon, close to the ocean where she can indulge her passion for sea swimming.

This is not an easy read, but any book that tackles the subject of abuse, sexual exploitation, victimhood, and coercive control is bound to be challenging.

At 15 years old, Vanessa is in a sexual relationship with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old teacher. Following the ruins of her affair, she convinced herself the relationship was built on love. Seventeen years later, when another former pupil accuses Strane of abuse she starts to question herself and re-contextualise her childhood experience.

We explore Vanessa’s experience and understanding of the relationship, her understanding of Strane as a person, and the idealisation of her first sexual encounter.

Beautifully crafted, challenging, and thought-provoking … My Dark Vanessa repeatedly challenges our understanding of relationships and abuse …

My Dark Vanessa repeatedly challenges our understanding of relationships and abuse, a concept that changes over the course of the book as Vanessa attempts to develop clarity in her understanding. Vanessa initially considers herself the seductress, as she matures, her understanding of her feelings and the emotional effects of the relationship becomes more apparent. The main question being, how could she have gone willingly into a relationship without fully understanding the implications and expectations? Consent is a key theme — but also a cause of some confusion for the protagonist who asks, ’how can one willingly be raped?’.

On the cusp of adulthood, events change her life completely. She denies the relationship to protect her teacher whom she professes to love, and is publicly shamed by having to apologise to her fellow pupils for ‘lying’. Those in authority who suspect abuse do not intervene or acknowledge her experience. Later Vanessa herself is involved in the cover-up as she becomes her teacher’s confessor regarding his relationships with other students.

We see Vanessa constantly re-telling the story of the relationship, which becomes darker and more manipulative over the years as she remains in contact with Strane until finally acknowledging the ‘wrongness’ of her experience.

Beautifully crafted, challenging, and thought-provoking, My Dark Vanessa is a stark reminder to recognise the signs of childhood abuse and not to assume that a victims interpretation of events is ‘the right one’. If you feel strong enough, read it.


Featured book

Russell KE. My Dark Vanessa. London: Fourth Estate, 2020, PB, 384pp, £6.29, 978-0008342289.


Featured photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

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8 months ago

Vasumathy Sivarajasingam is a GP in West London and an Honorary Clinical Research Fellow at Imperial College London. She is also the Northwest London Primary…

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