BOOK REVIEW: My Dark Vanessa by Katie Elizabeth Russell

TW: This post talks about abusive relationships, sexual abuse and grooming.

Book #20! A title I found, again, through rave reviews on many bookstagram accounts. It has also drawn its fair share of controversy, as I noticed last year when a series of headlines found their way to my attention (I purposely turned away as I was trying to avoid getting sucked in to yet another expensive book haul). I try to avoid looking into the synopsis of new reads, simply because I like starting books with a blank slate. This approach generally means that the impact of a good book is made greater by the fact I have no pre-existing ideas or expectations. However, in this context, I do want to make it clear to readers that this book and my review will touch upon really triggering themes for survivors of abusive relationships, sexual abuse and grooming. So, with this in mind, if you consider yourself to be a survivor who might not be ready to read about these kinds of topics, maybe this review and book isn’t for you right now.

My Dark Vanessa by Katie Elizabeth Russell. A debut that was voraciously consumed in a matter of days, which is impressive given the fact I work a full-time job now.

The story begins as so: at the tender age of 15, Vanessa strikes up a sordid relationship with her considerably older English teacher, Mr Strane. As a young girl at a prestigious boarding school with no friends, she’s ripe for plucking by a sinister predator with a knack for young, vulnerable girls. He lures her in through a collective love of poetry and literature, and the pair conduct their affair under the radar for a number of years before it’s brought to the attention of the superiors at the school and the consequences of their transgression are felt.

This novel was highly triggering, as a survivor of abuse. However, I’m so grateful it was written as I feel it really brings to light the reality of living with trauma and also raises very powerful, astute questions about how we, as society need to change in order to deal with the pandemic of misogyny that continues to run rampant.

Russell is a fantastic writer. The novel made me squirm. It was a deeply uncomfortable read from the perspective of a young woman entrenched in trauma, and it didn’t feel gratuitous, disingenuous or exploitative. I didn’t once get the feeling that Russell wrote this story merely as a means of selling copies and also wondered whether it was on-the-nose because she has stood in these shoes herself, but of her own volition, Russell has refused to clarify whether this is the case (too right, it’s nobody’s business unless she wants it to be!). It’s personal, gritty and cuts to the bone. Russell builds a devastating and authentic picture of what trauma does to a person: Vanessa is a really troubled young woman who has failed to move on and live her life as a result of what she has gone through. Unstuck in time, Vanessa’s world revolves around Strane and reliving the past, obsessing over the details of her youthhood. She’s entangled in a web of her own self-loathing and coasting through her life with a low-end job, no friends and no notable romantic relationships. Her days are spent fantasising and enviously casting glances at young girls, living in their prime of their lives as she continues to stagnate with no considerable prospects. Every day, she contends with powerful, all-encompassing emotions such as shame, jealousy, regret and anger. She abuses her body with recreational drugs and seeks out self-destructive relationships, believing herself incapable and undeserving of a healthy partner.

Russell really honours the voices of survivors, both those who have spoken out about their ordeals and those who feel unable to. There are graphic scenes of sexual abuse depicted, which describe in agonising detail the extent to Vanessa’s dissociation and fear. Though she looks back in retrospect with desire, it’s clear from the chapters about her early-teen experiences that the nature of the events as they were happening were considerably more ominous and dangerous than she describes in later life.

A lot of Vanessa’s memory of what happened is the product of Strane’s recollections and forced narrative. Whilst others are quick to classify Vanessa’s experience as abusive, brandishing words like paedophile to describe Mr Strane and rape to best-describe their physical intimacy, Vanessa herself looks back fondly on her time with the enigmatic teacher. At the heart of her story, Vanessa is broken and as much responsible, if not more-so, for the relationship she shared with Mr Strane than he himself.

Russell breaks down society’s toxic obsession with the glorification and romanticisation of relationships between children and grown men. From Vanessa’s perspective, we see the impact firsthand of unhealthy relationships and the lifelong impacts they have. It’s not a harmless fling, it’s not an innocent foray into romance, it’s not a noble way to enter adulthood. It’s abuse and it’s indefensible, which only makes it so much worse when society normalises these relationships by encouraging the premature sexualisation of young girls and pardons those in power who abuse their positions, time and time again.

In addition, Russell excellently pinpoints the shifting behaviours of a strategic predator who deploys gaslighting techniques from the outset in order to lure Vanessa into an awful downward spiral of self-doubt. Mr Strane evades all blame and instead assigns it to Vanessa, romanticising her power over him as though she really is a living nubile Lolita-esque nymphet, unaware of her fatal grip over older men. It’s a really intimate look at what gaslighting is truly like when you’re inside the bubble and unable to hear the pleas of the outside world, begging you to get out while you can.

Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement with pressure mounting to “call out” oppressors, Vanessa is forced to reconcile with her memories of her first love and to deal with the problematic questions that arise when she compares her memories with the accounts of other bystanders and victims. Through Vanessa’s messy outlook on the relationship, both from a younger and older perspective, Russell does a brilliant job of raising important questions with this story:

For instance, is a victim obligated to share their experience, potentially unearthing years of repressed trauma, in order to help others come forward? And what does coming forward with these stories achieve, especially years after the incident? Are predators capable of realising their role in past abuse and can they be rehabilitated? What’s the point and how can we expect there to be a societal change when we’re living in an era that excuses the likes of Bill Crosby and sentences Britney Spears to more years living under the thumb of a court-mandated conservatorship?

There are no categorically black and white answers to these questions. There are a lot of emotions, a lot of them ugly, and a lot of very traumatised people walking around wearing masks because they know they don’t have overnight solutions to the source of their pain, and they know they never will. All we can do is ruminate on how we can be stronger allies to survivors of assault and how we can help to confront misogyny, in whatever way is safe, in our daily lives.

BOOK REVIEW: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

In recent years, we have seen many niche interpretations of classic Greek mythology. In particular, many writers have taken on the immense responsibility of bringing life to marginalised female characters from Homer’s classics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. One such example is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

The Silence of the Girls is predominantly from the perspective of Queen Briseis, who is enslaved by Achilles during the Trojan War. As a slave, Briseis is subjected to demeaning acts of sexual abuse and expected to perform as a maid, at the beck and call of the fighters settled on the beach of Troy. She exists solely to be claimed, owned, used and disregarded. Her situation is not extraordinary, in fact, there is a small community of other Trojan women who have found themselves in the same position. Their only solace is sharing a room together, where they work on looms during the day and reminisce on their old lives, before they are claimed for the nights by their owners. Generally alone and witness to the destruction of her home and family, Briseis is a jaded and embittered woman who spends a lot of time strolling along the beach in her solitude. 

Barker permits Briseis the privilege of sharing her story as a survivor and gives her a unique opportunity to present her perspective on one of the main events that changed the course of the Trojan war. You see, Briseis is the crucial piece of meat that serves as the catalyst for the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. When, as the trophy prize of Achilles, she is stolen by Agamemnon and dangled cruelly before the camp as a gesture of dishonour, Briseis is regarded as the cause, as opposed to the victim, of the situation which eventually led to Achilles’ death. Barker reminds audiences that Briseis is the pawn, totally uninvolved within the dispute itself, yet tarnished as a result of the part she unwillingly played. 

The Silence of the Girls has been on my “to be read list” for a couple of years now. The novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 and garnered accolade as a feminist retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women who were enslaved during the Trojan War. The Silence of the Girls was not the only novel of this style to be shortlisted for the prestigious award. Madeline Miller’s second novel Circe, exploring the origins and adventures of the enchantress known for seducing Odysseus in The Illiad, also wound up being shortlisted for the same prize. This novel was released eight years after her stunning debut The Song of Achilles.

Now, it is impossible to talk about The Silence of the Girls without facing the elephant in the room. There are numerous comparisons to be made between The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls. Firstly, both novels are set during the Trojan War and seek to empower the voices of marginalised characters such as that of Patroclus and Briseis. This is crucial in that they were otherwise regarded as voiceless or mere objects in the original narratives, described through the lens of the male gaze and generally depicted as passive roles within the patriarchal stories of the epic battles. Secondly, both novels seek to present Achilles in a more complex and dimensional manner: his archetypal masculinity is re-examined with a contemporary perspective, which explores his repressed sexuality and paints a picture of him as a sensitive and tormented fighter. I really enjoyed Barker’s depiction of Achilles’ mummy issues and his attempts at intimacy, probably more accurately described as suckling at his bed-thing’s teats like a child due a feed. In The Song of Achilles, Achilles’ personal identity, often eclipsed by the stature of his social identity as the prophetic “best fighter of all time”, is given the opportunity to exist on the page as an honorary queer literary figure. Where the novels differ, however, is in their discussions of war.

The Song of Achilles is a love story set against the backdrop of the Trojan war. Whilst Miller’s narrative is anchored in the romantic relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, Barker’s focus is solely on the absolute destruction of the war: she does not shy away from depicting brutality. Especially from the eyes of Briseis, who has seen her family slaughtered and knows of her cruel fate the moment she is plucked up by the enemy, there is no romanticisation. Her language is crude, profanic and bitter. She describes the squalid conditions in which the fighters survive: the rat infestations, the consequences of men riddled with plague and the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The intention is definitely not to avoid the uncomfortable: audiences are reminded of the conditions at every possible opportunity and Briseis is scathing from the outset. 

Barker is brilliant at voicing Briseis’ anger. She doesn’t belong there in the camp, the property of some man who has come to claim his fame. She is a woman who had a life of her own and was stolen away, demoted and degraded as a prisoner of war. 

Overall, I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls, but feel it was somewhat lacklustre. It just didn’t impact me in the way I had anticipated. This is likely because I enjoyed The Song of Achilles so much and read it so recently. As much as I tried to objectively separate one novel from the other, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons! One thing’s for certain, I definitely want to read more by Barker as I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style. In the lead-up to the release of The Women of Troy and with so many other Greek mythology-based novels like Ariadne due for release shortly, I think I’ll take a brief break from this genre so that I can come back to it with a fresh set of eyes and really appreciate the nuances of the storytelling.