Though ‘dark’ Vanessa did give me a clue that this book might be a bit sinister. I went into this book completely blind and had absolutely no idea what it was about prior to reading. If anything this enhanced my experience of it and allowed me to come to it with a blank slate which I enjoyed. Unbeknown to me, this book is about a 15yr old school girl who is groomed by her 43yr old English teacher, Mr Strane. The narrative switches from past to present and in her present state (2017 post #metoo) she is grappling with the aftermath of the media frenzy surrounding a sexual abuse claim against Mr Strane. This spotlight forces Vanessa to remember her own experiences with him and confront how they’ve influenced the direction her life has taken.
Firstly, I thought this book was incredible. The relationship between the groomed and the groomer was so intricately explored; I could really tell that Russel had tried to delicately deal with the matter of victimhood whilst also incorporating attitudes towards age gaps and pedophilia. Vanessa herself doesn’t see herself as a victim and she is convinced that she loved Strane, therefore it was not abuse. I found this book captivating for its realistic representation of how emotions can develop and change. Though it’s easy to brand things as very black and white, they’re often various shades of grey – the notion of consent blurred by manipulation, coercion, lust and self-preservation. If Vanessa accepts that it was abuse then she accepts his love was a lie, and she isn’t ready for that yet. One thing is for certain though Strane is a perverted human being, who manipulates every situation for his own gain – including his own death.
My only complaint is that not enough time is spent with present Vanessa (for me). I felt like the present narrative was too fleeting and wasn’t as developed in terms of character progression. The ending feels a little rushed. While this may be because present Vanessa is still coming to terms with trauma, these sections felt like they weren’t given enough air to breathe. I think this is in part because there is a few subplots that distract us from the central conflict. The Henry subplot felt superfluous and overkill to me – it equally acts like a red herring. We are lead down this trajectory of thinking that Vanessa is seeing advances where there are none, and that she in fact is the instigator; creating situations in her own head. I found this to be disappointing if I’m honest and a little late in the game to be making us question these sorts of moral dilemmas and reader alignment. I appreciate things are multifaceted. However, this to me, felt like a complete change in tact.