My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Your Preview Verdict

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Your Preview Verdict

Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age. It is an era-defining novel about the relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her teacher.

Read some 5 star reviews from our Preview readers here:

Dark Vanessa is very as the title tells you – very dark! But so moving and a book that you would be mistaken for thinking is a true story written by the author. It’s a book I truely believe should be put into high schools around the world. It’s very relevant to the current world we live in and is so wonderfully written. It will be a book I will be recommending everyone to read. – Sarah, QLD, 5 stars

The subject matter of this book is hard to read about and prospective readers need to be warned that the content centres on child sexual and emotional abuse. Dark, compelling, challenging, this is a piece of gripping, nuanced, well constructed, if disturbing, writing about a young, isolated girl and her relationship with her English teacher. It makes for unhappy reading as the grooming is apparent and the unhealthy, inappropriate relationship turns sexual very quickly and it leaves a lasting impact on all parties: Vanessa herself, the teacher, her parents, and other schoolchildren. I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading it: it was too discomforting and thought provoking and I am sure that it will be a conversation piece for many. Thanks to Better Reading for the uncomfortable read. – Pamela, VIC, 5 stars

If I had known how dark this was going to be I wouldn’t have asked to review it. But I’m not sorry at all. Powerful and confrontational. What a read. I feel like I know what it’s like to be in a paedophilia relationship as a 15 year old. Vanessa is a very unreliable narrative. I was completely in her head the complete book. As a outsider completely revolted by Strane. This is a book all about power; Vanessa thinks she’s got it but I think we know she’s powerless. But the fact I’m questioning it makes me think this is an incredible book. ‘you can’t rape the willingly’ I think I’ll be thinking about this book for along time to come – Anna, NSW, 5 stars

Wow. My Dark Vanessa definitely tested my comfort levels with its dark and chilling subject matter but I found it to be a compelling, valuable and necessary read. This novel will draw you in, unsettle and disturb you and at times make you sick to your stomach but it will keep you absorbed as it explores the dynamics of grooming, the issues of power, consent, manipulation and abuse. Through Vanessa’s perspective as a 15 year old and in her 30s we see firsthand how easy it is to fall victim to grooming and the devastating long-term effects that her teacher’s predatory behaviour has on her. The writing is raw, visceral and packs quite a punch and is a fantastic debut novel for Kate Elizabeth Russell, she has tackled a difficult subject extremely well. My Dark Vanessa will certainly make you think, it will encourage discussion and it will leave you with a lasting impression. – Maridel, NSW, 5 stars

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, is unlike any novel I have read before. While the book is a work of fiction, its subject matter is realistic, reflecting a dark and disturbing aspect of society. The book is written from the first-person perspective of the main character, Vanessa, who, as an adult, narrates both her present-day life and her life as a teenager and young adult. We witness events as Vanessa becomes the victim of grooming, manipulation and abuse from a male teacher, gaining insight into her thought processes as she attempts to deal with the ramifications into adulthood. We also learn something of the ways in which the teacher, Jacob Strane, to justifies his evil deeds to himself, to his victims, and to society. Some aspects of the story are so disturbing that, at one point, I felt too sick to continue reading. I considered abandoning the book but am glad that I persevered. The story is well written and complex, challenging the reader to the core. It is a story that needs to be told. – Alison, QLD, 5 stars

Utterly disturbing and impossible to put down. Books like this are so important, not only in the #MeToo era, but as a reminder that such breaches of trust are committed every day around the world and we must continue to spread awareness of what such acts truly are. – Emma, VIC, 5 stars

A must read, BRILLIANT, POWERFUL, WOW. I had a hard time writing my review for this book as I wanted to do it the justice it deserved.  I found this  book at times dark, depressing and very hard to read yet impossible to not keep reading.  This is a sensitive subject, and Kate Russell managed to tell this story in such a wonderful true to life way.  If this is a debut novel I will certainly be looking out for her in the future.  This book has stayed with me as it will most readers.  A great book club read. My Dark Vanessa will be talked about by many.  It was hard for me to like Vanessa yet my heart went out to her again and again. Read it, you will not be disappointed. Thank you Better Reading a book that may have gone under my radar, so pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book. – Debbie, VIC, 5 stars

Vanessa is a 15 year old student when she is sexually abused by her 42 year old teacher. Vanessa thinks this is love and she is lolled and manipulated into thinking that their relationship is truly what love is. We see Vanessa years later as an adult. She is not well adjusted and the abuse had clearly taken its toll on her. When another victim outs Strane, Vanessa is forced to look back on her life and redefine what she thought was the love of her life. My Dark Vanessa is a deeply disturbing story. Timely in the current MeToo era. Right from the start it is obvious, from an adult’s point of view, that Vanessa is being groomed and reading it sends a chill through your body. My Dark Vanessa is a story of manipulation, abuse of power and turning a blind eye. It is not only the perpetrator who is at fault here. Knowing adults need to speak up for children and denounce this behaviour. – Veronica, NSW, 5 stars

I have such praise for Kate Elizabeth Russell. My Dark Vanessa had me from the very beginning. For such a dark and polarising subject matter, I was hooked. I have yet to find a novel on this subject that I have enjoyed so much. The closest I have come is My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. My Dark Vanessa follows the story of Vanessa, a fifteen-year-old school girl attending boarding school a few hours away from her hometown. She is a little disorganized, has very little friends and finds herself quickly becoming a “teacher’s pet” to her forty-something-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. Kate Elizabeth Russel cleverly cuts between past an present in her writing and drawers on the emotions of each character. As a reader, you can see how each character is feeling even if you don’t agree with their point of view. Such a great novel, not one for the faint-hearted. 5 stars. – Hannah, NT, 5 stars

This story is about abuse, The story alternates between now 2017 and then 2000 when Vanessa is just 15 years old,– she has no friends, is extremely shy and introverted, and very lonely, thus begins the grooming. I found the beginning of their “relationship” extremely disturbing and uncomfortable to read, the little touches here and there, the looks, the poems he gave her which he said reminded him of her. At times I felt like a voyeur reading someone’s private diary. Vanessa didn’t feel abused or felt that they had done anything wrong at all, and they still continue to be in contact even though it is now only as “friends” as Vanessa said herself, she is no longer young enough for a sexual relationship, however throughout the novel you can feel her struggle with “the relationship” and what it meant. “I just really need it to be a love story……“Because if it’s not a love story, then what is it?”. The writing was incredibly easy to read and whilst I struggled with the storyline, I love the author’s tone and language choices. You enjoy a good book, however a great book makes you feel something, and that what this book did for me, I felt angry, disgusted and incredibly sad. It is not an easy book to read but it is absolutely worth it. Highly recommend this outstanding debut novel. – Lisa, TAS, 5 stars

Dark, powerful and deeply disturbing Vanessa’s story is told in two timelines as a fifteen year old teenager and then at age thirty-two. I found this story to be utterly disturbing but impossibly hard to put down. This is the thought provoking and complex story of a fifteen year old student Vanessa Wye and the dark ongoing relationship with her forty-two year old English teacher Jacob Strane. A masterful portrayal of manipulation, grooming and abuse disguised as love. What’s additionally distressing is that the victim here did not realise she was a victim, this is her ‘LOVE STORY’, it just makes you want to scream! Vanessa and Jacob’s relationship was toxic and dysfunctional. Jacob was a vile monster, he was a master manipulator who often played the victim, Vanessa was a bright but unsuspecting student, a teacher’s pet. At thirty two years of age, a sequence of explosive events leads Vanessa to reflect on her past relationship with Jacob. This story just seemed so real to me as if it was someone’s actual true story… it was so powerful, beautifully written and memorable. I find it hard to give it the review it deserves. Wow what a gem of a debut novel for Kate Elizabeth RusselI, you just know it will be a best seller, a must read! – Gloria, SA, 5 stars

I am completely blown away by this book. It explores the tough subject of an inappropriate relationship between student and teacher. It filled me with intense discomfort and unease, yet it has become one of my favourite books of 2019. – Jenny, VIC, 5 stars

My Dark Vanessa should come with a trigger warning. Anyone thinking of reading this book should know that it deals with some extremely difficult content. Vanessa was fifteen when she first had sex with her English teacher. She thought it was love. Now, she is being forced to redefine everything she thought she knew. This book deals with themes including consent, power, manipulation, rape and trauma. It is an incredibly powerful, dark, confronting and thought provoking story. I found this book incredibly hard to read. I often felt uncomfortable, angry, frustrated and sad. However, it is an excellent book. The story is well written and insightful. It addresses content that needs to be talked about and is unapologetic about doing so. This book will stay with me for a very long time. – Laura, SA, 5 stars

“My Dark Vanessa” is a stunningly complex exploration of a coercive relationship. It shows how people can be victimised without realising it; the realities of grooming and the impact on victims. Russell has a lot of empathy, and uses that to make us understand why a victim might not see herself as a victim, or abused, even as others are explicitly using that language. The novel is brimming with empathy for Vanessa and her situation. Strong characters and an excellent exploration of Vanessa’s inner world make for a powerful story that will move you. While it encourages a strong moral and emotional reaction, it doesn’t preach. Although it is delicate and sensitive where it needs to be, the novel never loses sight of the fact that the central relationship is indisputably wrong. I can’t exactly say that I loved this novel, because the subject matter is dark and uncomfortable. But it is an outstanding novel. Full of empathy, it gently nudges readers towards a greater understanding of victims and why they might defend their abusers. Although particularly timely at the moment of the #MeToo movement, this would be a powerful novel in any era. – Lorraine, ACT, 5 stars

This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time. Kate Elizabeth Russell crafts a complex portrayal of grooming and child abuse, putting the reader in the shoes of the distressed protagonist Vanessa. A gripping read that reflects the time we live in when enough is enough of coverups and excuses. – Chloe, ACT, 5 stars

This book was amazing! I loved the writing as it kept me so captivated. There were moments that were hard to read as Mr Strane took Vanessa’s youth from her. The struggle that she went through is something I wouldn’t want any girl to go through. It is sad that women feel they need acceptance from men by using their bodies. This book certainly opened my way of thinking about women and how we let men treat us. It was a bold and powerful story about traumatic sexual encounters that really should never have happened. I wish for any other Vanessa’s out there to realise their worth in the world and not let men make them think they are not powerful enough. Great writing and looking forward to this authors next book! – Lynne, NSW, 5 stars

My Dark Vanessa is a hauntingly intense book that will stay with you long after you have put it down. It is unflinchingly honest and raw and leaves you feeling split wide open. Told in an alternating past and present view we are shown the manipulation of a naive young girl by her teacher as well as the flow on affects to her adult life. This novel leaves you contemplating and questioning your personal views and opinions not only while reading but long after you have finished. I have not read such a well written documentation of abuse. – Mel, NSW, 5 stars

This subject is normally one I would avoid as it is just not my style of reading that I enjoy. I was pleasantly surprised when I began reading this book. I could not put it down. My Dark Vanessa is a novel that makes you think about human nature. I felt so many deep emotions whilst reading this novel. It was a compelling and captivating piece of fiction that had me thinking it felt so real. It is a must read for anyone! – Aleisha, qLD, 5 stars

It was an interesting read and kept me hooked till the end as I needed to know if Vanessa come come out ok in the end and happy. It has very dark eye opening parts based on how you can train a child to be who you want. Also about who will help you and knowing if anyone will stand with in, in a time of crisis. I really did enjoy this book and would recommend to people with an non judgemental mind. – Beth, TAS, 5 stars

Vanessa is a 15 year old girl at boarding school who was sexually abused by her English teacher. He groomed her from the start. She didn’t have any friends and she became involved with a sexual predator. She was too young and alone to resist his advances and she believed it was love. She suffered many years later with relationships. He told her at the beginning that he would “ruin her” and he did just that. – Vivian, ACT, 5 stars

Thank you Better Reading for my ARC of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel, My Dark Vanessa. I’m totally torn on this one. On one hand it was such a good read. I really enjoyed it. The characters were easy to relate to, plot was believable and the story progression was good. But, on the other hand… such a brave topic to write about!! Child grooming is a scary thing, but so real. Very confronting but worth the read. – Rebecca, TAS, 5 stars

“When Strane and I met, I was fifteen and he was forty two!” Vanessa, now in her 30s is in a dead end job as concierge at a Maine Hotel – guiding guests to the best places to eat, what to see and do, organising their dry cleaning BUT she is a victim who was groomed by her English high school teacher and she is still coming to terms as to what happened to her. Is it really the love story she believes or can she comes to terms with being a victim of abuse. ‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a dark story dealing with the grooming of a child and the subsequent abuse both physically and emotionally. It is such an important story to tell and so relevant with the world focus on sexual assault and the #MeToo Movement. ‘My Dark Vanessa’ alternates between Vanessa’s past and present life; her recollection of events and how she perceives the ‘relationship’ she had with Jacob Strane. It is graphic in detail, uncomfortable and painful to read but it is such a powerful story! – Karyn, ACT, 5 stars

This is so much more than the story of the ruinous relationship between 15 year old Vanessa and Mr Strane, her 42 year old teacher at the prestigious Browich boarding school. She’s a lonely misfit, a ‘dark romantic’ and perhaps a troubled girl with a teenage crush. He’s the abhorrent predator. We think we know where this is going … Debut author Kate Elizabeth Russell lays out the rules of inappropriate relationships we adhere to : the age of consent, the imbalance of power, the trauma of abuse. She doesn’t provide us with a MeToo Manifesto or a Grooming Guide. She delivers subtleties and shades that has the reader empathising with an unreliable character who has romanticised and enabled the abuse. At every age, (15, 22 and 32 years) Vanessa needs it to be a love story, whatever others thought it looked like. The relationship defined her. Despite warning signs she justifies that she was a willing participant,wielding the power. Never a victim. But psychologically Vanessa is stuck in her teenage past. Is she just spinning her life story how she can best live with it? By not exposing herself is she being selfish? This is a hard hitting novel that will open conversations and have book club membership spiking. ‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a line from a Vladimir Nabokov poem. His novel about the nymphet ‘Lolita’, used as a grooming tool by Mr Strane, was published in 1955. But only recently have victims of this abuse found their voice, perpetrators been shamed. – Anita, QLD, 5 stars

This book is extremely hard to read very disturbing, Vanessa is a young 15 year old girl at boarding school, The book goes from the year 2000 to current day 2017 hard not to give away any spoilers but Vanessa is groomed by an older male teacher, this book was certainly an eye opener to me – Deborah, NSW, 5 stars



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            Publisher details

            My Dark Vanessa
            Kate Elizabeth Russell
            01 February, 2020


            An era-defining novel about the relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her teacherVanessa Wye was fifteen-years-old when she first had sex with her English teacher.She is now thirty-two and the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student of his. Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn't abuse. It was love. She's sure of that. But now, in 2017, in the midst of allegations against powerful men, she is being asked to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape.Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, and as riveting as it is disturbing, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age is grappling with.
            Kate Elizabeth Russell
            About the author

            Kate Elizabeth Russell

            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. Her work has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, and Quarterly West, among other journals, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. This is her first novel.

            Books by Kate Elizabeth Russell


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