Update: I just read and reviewed EXCAVATION, the memoir that MY DARK VANESSA is being compared to and at one point was accused of plagiarizing. I personally don't think they are very similar and have written a blog post comparing the two.
The novel LOLITA is central to this book, which makes sense since, like LOLITA, the narrator of MY DARK VANESSA is unreliable. Unlike LOLITA, however, MY DARK VANESSA is narrated from the POV of the victim of abuse, not the abuser. Obviously, this book is about some very traumatic and unsettling subjects since it is a story about a teacher and his inappropriate sexual relations (statutory rape) with a student, so if that's sensitive for you, you might want to read cautiously.
Oh, and yes-- there will be spoilers.
The title comes from a passage from Nabokov's other book, PALE FIRE, which Vanessa Wye's teacher, Jacob Strane, shows her one day while telling her about how she makes him feel. He does that a lot, giving her books of poetry, works of literature, telling her that she's precious and rare and dark and "dripping beauty." He pretends like he wants to resist, but his grooming of her is so gradual, so inevitable, that Vanessa is convinced that she wants this as much as he does by the time he makes his move.
While reading this, I thought of two other books about inappropriate teacher relationships with students, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS and INDECENT. THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS was also about the slow grooming of students, with that experimental touch on the knee, followed by inappropriate compliments and praises of a mature and worldly mind, before abruptly shifting towards the sexual. INDECENT did this also, but the abuser was a woman in that book, and it's interesting how the interpretation of that work shifts, with a number of people shelving it as a "romance." What this tells me is that our society has huge problems not just in how we look at victims of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse, but also how we look at typical gender roles.
Vanessa is a seriously traumatized girl and she doesn't know it-- or she does know it, but not in the way she should. Even in her 20s, stuck in a miserable job and still hung up on her abuser, Strane rules her life. She has squandered her potential and replays that year at her boarding school again and again, courting relationships with predatory men, and even becoming obsessed with one of her English professors. Vanessa would have you believe that he's obsessed with her, in the same way that Humbert believed that Lolita wanted it, but if you read between the lines, you'll see a man trying to befriend and mentor a student he sees as promising, but Vanessa, having had that inappropriate relationship with an older mentor figure who broke her trust in the worst way by doing what no adult should do with a young, and vulnerable student, sees him as coming on to her.
What is telling are her reactions (panic attacks) to triggers, like underage sexual abuse in films, or that moment of heartsick she has when she thinks that her professor is coming on to her the way Strane did. Vanessa tells everyone (including herself) that she wanted it, even telling her therapist that she "needs it to be a love story" because what happened to her at fifteen has become such an integral part of who she is that she cannot stomach the idea that being a victim is the core of her being. Because she can't let herself talk about it, she never moves on, and she is doomed to repeat it over and over, her mind obsessing over what she is unable to let go, adding to the trauma piece by piece.
MY DARK VANESSA is not a story with a happy ending. It is not a cathartic celebration of women rallying together to overcome a corrupt system, the way THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS was. Justice is meted out, but not by those who should have done something about it. The school failed Vanessa by siding with the abuser, as schools sometimes do. As institutions sometimes do. Taylor, the other girl who came forward, does not get justice-- at least, not in the way she deserves. Vanessa refuses to add herself to the list of names-- but it is a sad truth that many other women don't, either.
Part of what makes MY DARK VANESSA such a hard read is because you can see little slivers of yourself in her. I, too, was a precocious and jaded girl, and a lot of the books that Strane gives her are books that I enjoyed when I was young because they made me feel adult. Vanessa is just beginning to get an idea of who she is, and her headstrong spirit and sense of fairness and justice are completely crushed under Strane's carefully constructed attempts at mind-fucking and manipulation. Before Strane, she said some feminist-like things about how women shouldn't be judged by boys-- but after Strane, she's quick to blame the victim, to decide that women do ask for it. Because she needs to distance herself from other victims, to find a barrier to separate her circumstances from theirs.
I think the only other book that made me feel this strongly was Hanya Yanagihara's A LITTLE LIFE. Unlike A LITTLE LIFE, MY DARK VANESSA does end on a note of hope, but both books are very grim character studies that do a deep-dive into the psychological effects of severe abuse, and how the system tends to fail the same people over and over, until they start to feel helpless and maybe even like they deserved what happened to them in the first place. MY DARK VANESSA is a chilling read in particular because it really highlights how much faith we put into the people who take care of us as children, and how anyone could be a victim to those abuses when that trust is broken in the worst way. I wasn't sure this book would be worth the hype, but it was, and I am shaken.
4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars
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