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Book review of “My Dark Vanessa”: Nabokov’s “Lolita” re-imagined

Book cover of My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Artwork by Hope Lee (copyrighted).

My Dark Vanessa feels very much like a modern take on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. But with a twist. Kate Elizabeth Russell writes this harrowing tale of manipulation, grooming, and assault from the perspective of a teen girl, Vanessa, being seduced by an older male.

Russell has done an amazing job at telling Vanessa’s story. I felt pulled along with the narrative as Vanessa oscillated between desire and fear for her English teacher. Words like rape, assault, manipulation rarely appear in the story – only towards the end when Vanessa opens up to her therapist about her teenage experiences. Like so many tales of sexual abuse, Vanessa is blamed for the assault by her teachers and school colleagues. Vanessa, herself, questions her own involvement and often proffers the question, “Didn’t I want this?” to herself.

The novel speaks to the silence around assault and also highlights the ways in which these kinds of behaviours can go unnoticed, especially by parents. Vanessa has a complicated relationship with her parents, particularly with her mother. And the novel explores that distance and silence in such a bittersweet and heart breaking way.

The novel was not easy to get into, but it felt that there was a point of no return and I just had to finish it at all costs, which meant some late night reading sessions.

I have read Nabokov’s novel and always felt like it didn’t sit right with me. After reading Russell’s novel though, I feel like this was the story that was meant to be told. Many people think that literature, and fiction, don’t impact the ‘real’ world. Although I believe that literature and particularly fiction can give us the space to explore complex issues – like assault, manipulation, and grooming – in a way that can be freeing. The stories we tell each other matter. It is great to see the narratives we tell each other change and evolve to aid social change.

This is an amazing debut novel. It is beautifully written and done with great sensitivity and respect for the heavy topics the novel discusses. Russell has done an amazing job and I cannot wait to read more of her stories. As always, share the reading love.