Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

kate elizabeth russell my dark vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

A big dream becomes true when 15-year-old Vanessa Wye is accepted at Browick, an expensive boarding school with an excellent educational programme. Immediately she is hooked by her literature teacher, Jacob Strane, who opens the world of books to her. But this is not the only world he introduces her to. It all starts with some glances, some minutes he makes her linger after class, a careless and random touch until it is what it should not be: sexual abuse of a minor and a student. However, this is just one view, for Vanessa, it is her first love, the first time somebody pays attention to her, tells her she is pretty, appreciates her mind and opinion. Of course, a secret relationship like this will not go unnoticed and when Strane and Vanessa are confronted with the accusations, it is her who is expelled. More than 15 years later, she still wonders how all this could have gone so wrong, they were only in love, that’s all.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel really is a hell of a read. Using the first person narrator perspective, you climb into Vanessa’s head and get her thinking without any filter. More than once I was stunned, abhorred, terrified or just could shake my head in disbelieve. This girl – even as a grown up woman – is totally captured in her construction of the world, her oftentimes limited capacities of assessing a situation and the naivety with which she confronts her treacherous teacher is one of the best and highly authentic characters I have read about in a while. Even though I could hardly be farther away in my own thinking, I can easily imagine that her state of mind can be found in many girls who are insecure and a bit detached from her classmates.

This novel certainly is not for the highly sensitive. Child abuse and sexual harassment have been topics I have been faced with in my job and in my opinion, “My Dark Vanessa” is a superb example of how a molester gets closer to his victim and which techniques of manipulation he can use to make a girl or woman comply with his wishes. Blaming the victim for what has happened is one of the most loathsome strategies but quite typical and more than once I cringed while reading. Several times, Vanessa senses that something is not right, she feels maybe not abused but her wishes and needs are not respected but she does not possess the mental force or the words to express her position. Even when she is older, it takes some time for her to say it out loud what all that happened has to be called. Possibly her own understanding helped her to cope with the situation better than others, nevertheless, at 32, she is a total mess and far from mentally stable.

A wonderful novel in many respects. Not an easy topic to write about, but an exceptional development of the characters and by using flashbacks also an excellent way of presenting two interpretations of the same incident, the younger and the older Vanessa are not the same anymore. “My Dark Vanessa” was highly praised as one of the most remarkable and important debuts of 2020 – I could hardly agree more with this.

Magda Szabó – Abigail

magda-szabo-abigail
Magda Szabó – Abigail

WW2 is raging across Europe and has also reached Hungary. Gina Vitay’s father is a general and as such well aware of the dangers that come with Hitler’s advance. He decides to hide his daughter in Matula Institute, a boarding school on the eastern border. Gina is all but used to strict policies as she finds in the closed Puritan world and it does not take too long until she has set the other girls against her. There are rules and there are other rules, breaking the official ones is not a problem, but undermining the secret laws of the girls is punished with exclusion and contempt. It will take Gina a lot of effort to win back the girls’ confidence which she will desperately need since there are dangers looming over her that she is not at all aware of.

Magda Szabó was a Hungarian writer who was forbidden to publish by the Communist Party after being labelled an enemy of the state. “Abigail” is one of her best-known novels which was first published in 1970 and has since then been translated into numerous languages, however, this is the first time it is available in English. In 1993, Szabó was nominated member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and she is one of the most widely translated and read female Hungarian writers.

The novel cleverly interweaves friendship with the events of the Second World War. The notion of a world of black and white does not hold out against reality anymore and telling a friend from an enemy has become a difficult task. The world of the boarding school is walled off from the outside, the approaching war does not play a role, yet, for Gina, she has to fight her own battles within the old walls of the institution. The dynamics of a group of girls enclosed is very well portrayed in the novel, they develop their own set of order and exercise law if necessary. An interesting aspect is the character of “Abigail”, a statue which come to help if addressed by one of the girls. Until the very end, the readers can only speculate who is behind it and supports the girls against the strict direction of the school.

The spirit of the time of its origin can be read in every line, “Abigail” is far from today’s Young Adult or coming-of-age novels. The beautiful language and lovely details of the characters make it an outstanding document of its time and still worth reading fifty years after it has been written.

Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

scarlett-thomas-oligarchy
Scarlett Thomas – Oligarchy

When Natasha arrives from Russia at her new boarding school in rural England, she struggles to adapt. Not only the foreign language, but the special language all these year-11 girls from superrich families use. Yet, not only the words, but also the manners are quite unique and the one thing that they are obsessed with is how to lose weight. It is not just to get rid of some rests of baby fat or being in a better shape, the most important thing is being thinner than the others since the headmaster treats those girls differently. But then, their weight-loss competition goes totally wrong and one of the girls dies. Reaction of the school management: let’s not get any information outside and set up an anti-anorexia plan which only gives the girls even more ideas of what to do…

“Oligarchy” starts like some typical boarding school novel. 15-year-olds who do not have any serious worries, who try out the most absurd diets they can find, and modern-day obsession with pictures on the internet. Yet, it does not stop there, on the surface, of course, it is the world of adolescents we are presented with, teenagers who are reluctant to what their parents do and where the money comes from and who rebel against strict rules on their school. However, underneath, there are some much more fundamental questions addressed, first of all, how eating disorders are fired by what we are presented with every day. Secondly, the girls are rich, but most of them actually do not really have somebody to turn to, their parents are simply absent and even times of deepest distress does not seem to trigger any reaction from them.

Even though the novel is a bit stereotypical when it comes to the characters, I think the author did well in combining relevant topics in an enjoyable read. First and foremost, she has found the perfect tone with does neither ridicule the teenagers with their absurd ideas of how to diet and their supposedly secret cheating, nor does she take the serious consequences of their action too lightly. It is a novel that can educate, but fortunately, you do not feel like being educated.

Adrienne Celt – Invitation to a Bonfire

adrienne-celt-invitation-to-a-bonfire
Adrienne Celt – Invitation to a Bonfire

The revolution and following turmoil made an orphan of Zoya Andropova. Therefore, she like so many other kids comes to the USA as an orphan and is welcomed in a New Jersey boarding school. She never belongs even though she quickly acquires the language and gets good marks. After her schooling, she can stay on the premises and work in the newly built greenhouse where she fully immerses in her work with the plants. Neither does she have friends, nor a lover. It is just her work and the love for literature that keep her going. There is one author she has worshipped for years, Leo Orlov, another Russian émigré whose works she devours. When Leo comes to teach at the boarding school, Zoya seems close to happiness, but even though Leo returns her love, there is one person in the way of their luck: Vera, his wife.

Adrienne Celt’s second novel “Invitation to a Bonfire” is set in a complicated time and therefore offers several layers of narration. The book can be read against the background of Russian-American confrontation and distrust. It is also a coming-of-age novel of a girl who struggles in her new surroundings. The story provides a good example of group dynamics, of exclusion and bullying, of rich vs. poor. It clearly also broaches the issue of being forced to leave your country, forced to leave behind everything from your family, to your belongings and even your language. And, after all, it is a story about love and being loved and about what people are willing to do for the one they have fallen for.

With such an abundance of topics, it is hard to find a beginning. Let’s start with the protagonist. It really liked Zoya, she is a decent and modest character, she humbly accepts her status in the new school and avoids attracting attention. Even though the other girls play tricks on her, she remains loyal and keeps quiet. She can endure a lot and does not expect life to be fair. After what happened to her family, she knows that justice is not something you can rely on in this world. This is a truth she has accepted and thus, she can follow her ideals.

When she falls under the spell of Leo, you want to shout at her to run, far far away from this man and his wife. You can see that nothing good can come from this relationship – but: what else could she do than immediately fall in love? He is the first to see her, to show her affection and to love her. Her free will is gone and the is easy to manipulate.

The story is not fast paced, actually the love story comes at quite a late point in the novel considering its relevance. What made the narration really lively was the fact that Leo’s letters to his wife and other documents were integrated which allowed you a glimpse at a later point and thus added to the underlying suspense. The author has cleverly constructed the novel and her writing is adorably poetic and multi-layered, is starts with the first sentences which immediately drag you into the novel and don’t let you out before the finishing dot:

“Let me begin by saying I did not think it would end this way. No—let me begin by saying I will burn this diary shortly.”