Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!