It’s 2000. Vanessa Wye’s high school English teacher, Jacob Strane, is singling her out for special attention. It’s 2001. Vanessa believes Jacob when he says he loves her. It’s 2017. One of Jacob’s students is accusing him of sexual abuse, and Vanessa doesn’t know what to think about him anymore. Was she Jacob’s first victim, or a willing participant in a relationship with a much older man?
Stephen King, Gillian Flynn and other literary A-listers have sung the praises of My Dark Vanessa, a debut novel by Wisconsinite Kate Elizabeth Russell. And for good reason. Russell’s understated prose style provides a striking counterpoint to the complexity of her story’s narrative, which unfolds simultaneously across multiple timelines. And she writes bravely, refusing to give readers pat answers to the questions about power and consent that she raises.
The book has courted some controversy. Shortly before it came out, Wendy Ortiz – a writer of color who struggled to find a publisher for a memoir she’d written about her own experiences with a teacher – criticized My Dark Vanessa’s publisher for greenlighting fictionalized accounts of abuse written by white novelists like Russell far more often than memoirs on the same subject written by people of color. But many have rushed to Russell’s defense since then, saying that – while Ortiz’s criticism of the publisher may be valid – Russell writes from Vanessa’s perspective with empathy and authenticity.
The book My Dark Vanessa is available at Boswell Book Co.