I don’t usually read other reviews of the books I read. Mostly because I don’t care much what other people think about the novels I read (except, of course, you, dear readers) and because I’d rather be reading novels than reading about them (maybe says something about why I an academic life post-PhD was never all that appealing (even if it had been possible)). Anyway. In the case of My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell, I wanted to read some reviews just to check that I wasn’t completely crazy for thinking it wasn’t very good.
The review I read in the Atlantic by Sophie Gilbert got the question I had been circling exactly right: “The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile.” Because this is a book that explores, graphically, the abusive relationship between a fifteen-year old girl and her 42-year old male teacher. The narrative makes much of exploring from the first-person perspective of Vanessa whether this is ‘abuse’ if she never sees it that way; if she’s a victim, if she never claims or wants that designation – but the reader easily identifies what she experiences as trauma and abuse. And on each page we are afresh brought to a detailed description of that abuse, or what Vanessa alternately understands as romance and trauma.
I can imagine a narrative in which this kind of detailed description serves a larger purpose that illuminates something for the reader that would be impossible without such specificity. I’m not at all convinced this novel’s exploration of #metoo justifies its violence. I guess I’m circling a question that I ask a lot as an audience member at some slam poetry events: what care is owed to the reader?
Allow the digression: slam poetry (if you’re unfamiliar) is competitive spoken word. It attracts traumatic poems In a Big Way. Audiences, who judge the poems/poets, tend to offer very high scores for Big Traumatic Poems, in part, I imagine, because no one wants to be the person who gives a 7 out of 10 to a rape poem. And there are a lot of rape poems. So it seems from the vantage of a (former) competitor and audience member that each poem has to successively ‘top’ the trauma of the poem before – layering on additional intersectional trauma in an effort to ‘out trauma’ the poet who came before. None of this is ever explicit. Instead poets and audiences describe and celebrate the space of the stage as a place to work through and process this trauma. And that is true, too. Art – performative or narrative – is a space and appropriate place for exploring the contours of this pain. And understanding the intention of the author – was this a piece written to process pain? or to score points? or both? or can it be separate? – is, to my mind anyway, irrelevant. We the audience and reader, can’t know what was intended, and intent doesn’t matter, what we’re left with is the novel or poem and what it does to/affects in us as listeners and readers. Whether it genuinely moves us, or brings us to new insight about the topic, or lets us extend empathy in a new way, or – perhaps most importantly? – changes our orientation and our approach in the world.
In the case of My Dark Vanessa the narrative is, from my reading, unsuccessful in making this bridge. Instead I read it as a ceaseless succession of graphic scenes that shocked and upset me, without illuminating anything (or enough?) about power, gender, or the ties of family/friendship.
It’s an uncomfortable review to write – much like giving the 7 out of 10 to the trauma poem – because who am I to assess the worth or value of this confessional? And you could rightly say that my wide web of privilege makes me exactly the wrong person to be providing this assessment, and you’d be right. All I offer then is my view that the literary merit of this book is highly suspect. That the descriptions of abuse are graphic and extensive and relentless. And that the connections to wider cultural threads are tenuous or simplistic. Another reader will find different meaning and value. (Like Oprah who – briefly – had this book as an Oprah pick (before unceremoniously removing it over allegations of appropriation a la American Dirt)). But if I were you, I’d pass this one over. If you are intent on reading it, and live in the greater Guelph area, I’m – again – happy to leave it on my porch for you to pick up.