My Dark VanessaMy Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Dark Vanessa explores the trope of middle-aged-man-seduces-young-girl through the abused party’s perspective. Narrator Vanessa, deliberately blind to her own mistreatment, scorns and rejects the common labels of “victim” and “survivor.” Instead, she chooses to see herself as a complicit party in a mutually desired relationship. The novel evokes inevitable comparisons to Lolita; however, it does not recreate Vladimir Nabokov‘s vision (though author Kate Elizabeth Russell certainly pays homage to it in certain scenes).

My friend and I were recently chatting about books and she revealed Lolita was a “fantasy read”—and confessed she wished the main seduction scene contained more heat. I was nonplussed. Did we read the same book? From my perspective, Lolita is essentially a tragedy with comedic and satiric elements. Its implicit eroticism is heightened by Vladimir Nabokov‘s prose, but it’s not a hot and sexy romance meant to inspire arousal. To each her own…though in all honesty, my friend’s opinion disturbs me, because it epitomizes deliberate misinterpretation of an author’s intent, and fetishizes hebephelia.

In My Dark Vanessa, there are numerous references to Vladimir Nabokov‘s work (particularly, Lolita and Pale Fire), since teacher Jacob Strane uses these novels to groom student Vanessa into normalizing a forbidden love mentality. “Poor Mr. Strane” can’t help his cravings. What bad luck, to fall in love with a teenager! He doesn’t desire to seduce other students: he’s only in love with her. Or so Vanessa first believes…

My Dark Vanessa is not written to titillate. In fact, I struggled with nausea each time Strane made advances on his “special” pupil. Their sex scenes are not overly graphic, but they definitely contain the “ick” factor. The slow build and subsequent consummation of the main characters’ sexual and emotional relationship is written at a queasy pace (deliberate enough to draw out the tension—once the seduction reaches its climax, events rapidly escalate to a point of no return).

What seems like a series of glaring red flags to world-wise adults is interpreted as beacons of romantic possibility to lonely, naïve young Vanessa. Alternating between flashbacks and the present effectively illustrates the extent of the psychological damage Vanessa has incurred. It’s a fairly realistic portrayal of an unstable young woman unable to let go of her “first love”, since he made such a formative impression on her at a pivotal age during the height of her vulnerability. She clings to the memory of their relationship well into adulthood, and returns to him time and again even after he discards her for new conquests.

Kate Elizabeth Russell‘s debut novel is both a cautionary tale and fictional exploration of how those in power (such as teachers, and other figures of authority brought to public shame for their egregious transgressions during the #MeToo era) can exploit their privilege and status as leverage to sow seeds of doubt in their accusers’ credibility. It’s all too easy to imagine how frequently this type of teacher/student situation arises in both public and private academic settings. And easier still to imagine school scandals swept under the rug by self-serving administrations choosing to silence whistleblowers and protect their own reputations over revealing explosive, damaging truths about staff members.

Though the pacing lagged during the last third of the book, I nevertheless continued to turn the page at a steady rate. I rooted for Vanessa’s rejection of her self-imposed denial, yet found myself frustrated with her stagnancy and stubborn refusal to see Strane for what he was (a serial sexual and emotional predator of young women). At the same time, I understand how deep-seated trauma can result in the deepest form of denial and ultimately impede a person’s ability to grow and change. The book’s ending is less of a resolution than some readers might find satisfactory, but it’s realistic in the sense that the grieving process is complicated (therefore, healing through acceptance can be difficult to achieve).

All in all, My Dark Vanessa is a solid debut novel that offers a compelling, memorable read. The subject matter is as relevant now as I suspect it will prove in the years to come, since the #MeToo movement has only just begun.

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“Follower”

Author’s Note: the following short story is a 500-word flash fiction. It contains allusions to violence and sensitive thematic material related to hate groups. Reader discretion is advised.


Daniel always did what he was told: Brahms told him to follow that liberal woman home, so he didn’t protest. When she pulled out her pepper spray, he was already goggle-clad to protect his eyes from the burst of ocular irritant. If Brahms had instructed him to speak, he would’ve asked the target not to bother fumbling for her phone—he’d removed the SIM card and battery during her yoga class. (She habitually left her car unlocked.)

He would’ve told her not to waste her breath on hollering for help, because her next-door neighbors were enjoying their annual Fall Colors Tour and wouldn’t return until Sunday evening; and the widow who lived behind her, Mrs. Doussett, regularly bullied her on social media under an anonymous account that sported a Goldendoodle puppy profile pic. The targeted woman had no clue that her secret troll was a card-carrying Neo-Nazi grandma who would love nothing more than to watch the leftist feminist’s tattooed neck snap, entrapped within a self-inflicted hangman’s noose.

It’s not that Daniel hated the target, but he hated the type of person she symbolized: a pro-choice, equality-for-all, women-run-the-earth, freedom-grubber. He had no desire to kill her—besides, Brahms didn’t want to use his cop connections for any business that didn’t involve growing his radical conservative fanbase. She just needed to be scared silent. Stifled into submission. Snuffed out, like a trick candle on a birthday cake that’s been doused in water to keep it from relighting. Daniel could do it: he didn’t mind roughing up a woman, as long as she couldn’t positively identify him in a lineup. Keeping the trust of Brahms and the brotherhood trumped a personal reluctance to dirty his hands.

The damn thing of it was, he hadn’t expected her to be so resourceful. She didn’t carry a gun, but she kept a paring knife taped under the doormat—and she reached it before Daniel could reach her. He had a utility blade of his own, but he struggled to unsheathe it after she sliced his Achilles tendon; then it was impossible to retrieve his weapon after she stole it from his back pocket and slashed his throat with it. He hadn’t expected to exsanguinate on her welcome mat (or lament, in his last moments, about how he shouldn’t have taken Brahms’ reassurances that she’d be an easy target).

To Daniel’s great surprise, she tried to save his life. Ripped off her shirt and pressed it against his wound to slow the bleeding—attempted to dial 911. Her cellphone was useless: he’d done a bang-up job of disabling it. When he attempted to communicate that his own was in the glove box of his truck, he couldn’t speak, because his vocal cords were cut. In a curious act of compassion, she removed his goggles so he could watch the moon playing cat-and-mouse with the wily clouds.

The stars prepped a spotlight on Daniel as he followed Death, a superior leader, to his new home down below.


“Follower” © R. N. Jayne 2020

All Rights Reserved.

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