My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Mitchell

If you've ever wondered what Nabokov's Lolita might have been like if Lolita was the one telling the story instead of the repulsive Humbert, you might get some idea of that from Kate Elizabeth Mitchell's My Dark Vanessa.

Vanessa is in her early thirties, single and working on the front desk of a city hotel in America. It's clear that her level of education is way beyond what's required for her role and that her life outside work is dysfunctional and chaotic - she's reliant on alcohol and soft drugs, she pursues risky one-night-stands with men she doesn't like, and is reluctantly in therapy, seemingly at the insistence of an ex-boyfriend worn down by her instability. 

We also learn that as a 15-year-old scholarship pupil at an elite Maine boarding school, she had a consensual relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. Strane has now been accused of sexual assault by another of his pupils, and the story is all over the news. His accuser wants to get in touch with Vanessa, but Vanessa is 33 now and she and Strane are still in touch. Sometimes, she even calls him for phone sex in the middle of the night. She's not a victim of sexual assault - is she? 

As you can probably guess, the rest of the book looks back at Vanessa's adolescence and her involvement with Jacob Strane. This is where My Dark Vanessa starts to become a truly powerful, if uncomfortable, read. It's not that Vanessa thinks Strane did nothing wrong: she's not stupid, and she's fully aware that he did. What colours her view of the relationship between her and Strane is that she believes she was complicit in the wrongdoing. As far as Vanessa is concerned, this was a joint enterprise and she is every bit as guilty as he was. 

There were times when I was reading My Dark Vanessa that I wanted to shake Vanessa by the shoulders and ask her why in the name of God she cannot see what we can. She takes at face value Strane's reassurances that she doesn't have to do anything with him that she doesn't want to do, that he is giving her control, that he is tortured by his illicit attraction to her. When she sneaks away from school to spend the night at his house, a slinky black negligee packed in her overnight bag, she finds it touching, not unbelievably creepy, that he has bought for her instead some wholesome, strawberry-printed pink pyjamas. She believes Strane's assertion that her life, as well as his, will be ruined not by their relationship itself but solely by it becoming public.

That's not to say that Vanessa is easy to like - she isn't, particularly, and in fact that's one of the strengths of the book. As an adult, she's infuriatingly self-destructive, in a a near-constant state of denial, and also subjects others to her chaotic and selfish behaviour. And yet at no point did I lack sympathy for her, and her attachment to Strane, her abuser, is entirely plausible - not because he is likeable either, but because it's very clear what psychological impact his behaviour has had on Vanessa and her ability to form relationships as an adult.

My Dark Vanessa is a thoughtful, nuanced and challenging book, and it's often a disturbing one - and most of all, it's chillingly plausible in a way that's often quite heartbreaking. There were certainly elements of the subject matter that I found quite hard to stomach, but that's probably as it should be.