BookClub Review of My Dark Vanessa, March 2021
This was certainly a startling, “addictively disturbing” book. I don't think we have ever read a book that seemed to compel readers to want to talk quite so much about it, and my conclusion overall after now going through the two sessions, is that we needed our own kind of catharsis after reading it. No one could claim to have ‘enjoyed’ the story, however there is a recognition that it is an important subject matter and one where our own reaction feels intensely personal, regardless of one’s own life experience.
Furthermore, the decade of research that has gone into this book shows in every nook and cranny of the narrative. We could have talked for an additional hour on many different aspects which we were hardly able to touch on - the role and response of the school, the decisions of the mother and father, the early years of Vanessa which may ( or may not) have led to her being vulnerable, the boarding school peer friendship which went sour, the later college years, the rather suspect presence of Henry in her college life.
And that’s before we even start to talk about Jacob Stein! His physicality is powerfully rendered - and not in a good way. The sexual scenes in the book are cringingly described and not at all pleasant to read, all the while from the perspective of the unreliable, some might say, deluded, narrative of Vanessa. Her ‘mind disassociation’ during sex is a recognised pattern in dealing with trauma. His words, although limited in the novel, are consistently manipulative, clearly the superior in the relationship throughout the years. We feel the exasperation as adult readers, and yet compelled to read on. Did we feel, ourselves, like we were being ‘groomed’ and gaslighted throughout this narrative, did it leave us feeling a bit unsure of ourselves? Where is the distinction between her ‘agency’ and his abusive behaviour?
Vanessa, we know through her own eyes. We can only guess at what kind of child she was, or what kind of adult she might have grown up to be. She had to frame her own life as a love story, otherwise the reality was just too hard to see, even with the help of her therapist. We don’t get the impression that she’s ‘likeable’ - was this a deliberate move by the author, suggesting that we need sympathy for everyone in this situation no matter what their personal circumstances or personality?
There was a nod to current social media trends with the second victim being just a little younger, and more willing to ‘out’ her abuser and share her story on a public platform. With the relatively recent “hashtagmetoo” movement, this book feels very current. It would be interesting to look back on this in 2031 and see how it is received then. We have to hope that as time passes, this sort of book is no longer required, and that reaction to it is universal distaste.
Do we really need books like this though, one asked? Should teenagers read this, we wondered? Probably yes, to both counts, although with warnings and guidance throughout. It would be a valuable text to discuss with older teenagers. It is certainly a book that stays in your mind long after the final pages.