It is impossible to hear or read about a middle-aged man statutorily raping a teenage girl without thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. If you need proof – even Sting, who will readily admit to being the greatest songwriter since King David, mentioned Nabokov in Don’t Stand So Close to Me. He tried to use Lolita’s name first, but nothing rhymes with Lolita.
In My Dark Vanessa Kate Elizabeth Russell takes Lolita and shifts the perspective to that of the abused girl. However, the pedophile here is not an unintentionally-funny, delusional, and ultimately pathetic Humbert Humbert. Quite the opposite, Jacob Strane (think of Strange), the 15 years old Vanessa’s English teacher, is an experienced and masterful manipulator, and he cynically preys upon Vanessa’s loneliness and desperation to be thought of as special. Early on he tells her that she has “something these dime-a-dozen overachievers (her fellow classmates) can only dream of.” Proving he is a master of the back-handed compliment as well.
Nabokov and Lolita feature prominently in this brilliant and creepy book. The title comes from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which Strane is pleased to inform Vanessa has a passage where my dark Vanessa is rhapsodized as an admirable butterfly to be worshiped and caressed. Strane’s “grooming” of Vanessa also includes giving her his copy of Lolita, with his hand-written notes in the margins. Yeah, Strane is a disgusting creep, but Vanessa craves this attention, so she is incapable of seeing it. Or (just as concerning) she won’t acknowledge seeing it.
The story jumps between two periods in Vanessa’s life: her high school and college years (between 2000 and 2007) and 2017 at the height of the Me Too movement when she is 32 years old. Much like Humbert Humbert, Vanessa is an unreliable narrator who ends up deceiving no one but herself (again like Humbert Humbert, but without the ridiculous name). Initially, she refuses to accept that she has even been abused, as she insists the relationship (despite the obvious imbalance of power) was consensual. And she continues to grapple with the effects of the abuse well into adulthood. “I always seem to end up going out with . . . men who claim to be turned on by strength but can only handle women who act like girls.” Having the two timelines is effective. The reader sees how the sexual abuse of children was ignored even into the early 2000s, and then how it is everything but ignored at the height of the Me Too movement – where victims are pressured into telling their stories whether they want to or not. The reader experiences how the adult Vanessa begins to come to terms with the years of abuse. It isn’t pretty or romantic, but in a way it is heroic.
Regardless of its title, Lolita’s story was not told in Lolita. In My Dark Vanessa, it is. And the change of perspective (especially in light of the Me Too movement) is devastating. Because they have earned it, Vanessa and Lolita shall have the final words here. “What could we have done? We were just girls. . . . [It’s] not that we were helpless by choice, but that the world forced us to be. Who would have believed us, who would have cared?”
Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans