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Maybe she spent her formative years
Dealing with his contentious fears
And endless jeers at her endless tears
Or maybe she just got tired of watching him
– ‘For Her’, Fiona Apple
My Dark Vanessa is replete with literary references: after all, much of the action takes place in the classroom of an English teacher. Strane gifts these to Vanessa, hooking her in by comparing her hair to the colour of red maple leaves, giving her “Emily, Edna, Sylvia”, saying she reminds him of the section of Lady Lazarus (from Ariel): “Out of ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air”. The references are close to the bone: Lolita with faux coyness. He builds Vanessa out of these references: Lolita when she is seducing him, Lady Lazarus when his attraction to her is a threat to his position at the school. The onus of their relationship, as sculpted by Strane, is on Vanessa. In return, Vanessa tries to share Fiona Apple with him, something Strane cannot understand or connect to. The high school sections of book are set in 2001. Criminal, Apple’s first and one of her most potent singles, was released in 1997.
In the video, Apple is lying on beds and in bathtubs in various states of undress. Her thinness and youth are on display. The light is strong on her face, like a polaroid glare and her eyes are big and wide. She slithers around other bodies but we stay focused on her face, its yawning mouth. The song, like so much of Apple’s oeuvre, is a kind of anthem for young women, for girls who feel their sadness is particular to them. Apple on the bed is admitting she’s been a bad, bad girl. She says the song was written about using one’s sexuality to get something. Sexuality here is in Apple’s hands — it is her weapon and she is a criminal.
‘Criminal’ is the song that Vanessa tries to give Strane in response to Lolita. These texts are expressions of how they see their relationship. Strane uses Nabokov as a road map for their relationship, to populate and validate the narrative he is building for what happens between them. In return, Vanessa offers music.
At his house, Strane gives her beer and strawberry print pyjamas. He takes pictures of her on his bed and as she poses for them, Vanessa says they remind her of the Fiona Apple video but he doesn’t know what she’s talking about even though she had written out the lyrics for him and left them on his desk, the way he left her poems. Strane doesn’t engage with these: she pores over the texts he offers but he dismisses hers. It is partly a commentary on the age disparity (he’s never heard of Britney Spears, for example) but also that his reluctance to really engage with her version of events. He builds a narrative around both her motivations and his, feeding them to her over and over again until she believes them. The storytelling aspect of the relationship doesn’t end with the poetry and the novels. Strane refits the beginning: he says she was the one to chase him. Over the years, he will tell her this story again and again. He puts the burden of the relationship on her, that his desires have been risen by a “darkness” in her.
The book is split between two timelines — Young Vanessa, in 2001 and Vanessa as a grownup in the late 2010s. Young Vanessa’s love for Fiona Apple is well documented. Importantly, Apple predates Strane in her life. The summer before she meets Strane, Vanessa mourns the loss of an intense friendship and listens to Apple for hours in her parent’s hammock, saying it makes her “feel better than happy.” If Strane sees her as a seducer, as his undoing, Vanessa sees herself in Apple — like a “criminal”. After the relationship ends, she stays in contact with Strane, very much entrenched in the web of his fantasy. Like Fiona, she feels she’s been “careless with a delicate man”. Music is a tap into her feelings but it is also a way to explain the world as Vanessa sees it. The book understands this about teenagers, the particular way in which the music can take on lyrical significance: the soundtrack to anyone’s youth is filled with the meaning that we fill into those songs.
After the relationship is over, Vanessa stays in contact with Strane and is still very much entrenched in the web of his fantasy. As the book opens, something is happening all around her. There is an awakening spreading like wildfire through social media and the news: the #MeToo movement unfolding and creeping closer to her. The movement rushes over her, threatening to break the fantasy she’s been cherishing which, for so long, has been the story of her life — turning what is romantic to something sordid. Throughout the book, we watch her repel this narrative, concealing it from her therapist at first and finally unfolding the story to her (and us) full of concessions for Strane, all the ways in which she drove him crazy and is therefore responsible for the events that took place. Many stories about similar relationships end in school — My Dark Vanessa is a rare book that explores the aftermath in as much detail: the way the school and even to a degree, her parents, find it easy to believe that the blame is Vanessa’s, easily swallowing the lie that what has occurred here is no more than a schoolgirl crush that has gotten out of control.
I read the book in 2020 and Fiona Apple has just released a new album. It is unlike anything I have ever heard. At the core of it is the repeated nature of contending with trauma, and the actions of powerful men. In ‘For Her’, Apple says she has written a song that contains many stories, most of them not hers, based on conversations she’d had with women including one in particular who wrote about the experience she’d had as an intern in a film production company with a man who claimed to be (as Strane does) her mentor and protector. It is easy and painful to imagine Vanessa listening to this song, Vanessa whose whole life has centred around keeping Strane safe, on hiding the secret he binds her with, connecting somehow to the song: “Maybe she spent her formative years/dealing with his contentious fears.” The melody of the song is furious, frantic, reflection of the cacophony of stories that Apple is giving voice to. A full circle; Apple’s songs were consumed by young Vanessa Wyes and became part of their stories. Apple then went on to hear the stories, from women in similar positions and put them to song.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is heavy with catharsis, a thrumming, pulsating album. A tense and spiky heartbreak runs through it, dark with mistrust. Her songs have a way of making you feel inside them, that rare quality that writing can sometimes have by being very specific of hooking you deep into the belly of the song until is about you. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing has a similar effect so that even if you didn’t go to boarding school and end up in a traumatic relationship with your teacher, the teenhood of that character, her vulnerability and sharpness can still feel like an echo of your own. The book is dedicated to “the real life Dolores Hazes and Vanessa Wyes whose stories have not yet been heard, believed, or understood”. The act of reflection is built deeply into the project of the book, just as it is built into the project of Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Looking at the two texts in this way creates almost a Russian doll effect: I, the reader, can see myself in Vanessa, who in turn can see herself in Apple’s songs.
The progression from ‘Criminal’ to Fetch the Bolt Cutters charts the journey that Vanessa makes in the book almost perfectly, from a character who blames herself for the relationship to one who is swept up in the movement surrounding her. Another student at the same boarding school comes forward who has been assaulted by Strane and her story is picked up by the media. It haunts Vanessa as she moves through her life, made small by her father’s death, by the looming shadow of Strane that seems to keep other romantic or friendship complications at bay.
For years, Vanessa believes that what happened between her and Strane isn’t abuse but a romance. She believes in the power that Strane claims she had over him: that even after she left, Strane’s behaviour and his continued abuse of young girls was something she’d unwilling orchestrated. Now, as that illusion shatters, the novel asks us: what does Vanessa do with that version of herself? The novel is concerned with this question, with Vanessa’s life rather than Stranes. The media focus in these instances is often on the perpetrator, analysing the crimes and how they got away with them. The same attention is rarely afforded to the interior lives of the person at the centre of the story: My Dark Vanessa goes into the story deeply. It doesn’t just track the way the events played out and the immediate aftermath but follows the trauma as it bruises through the decades, a long take on an idea that has populated the media as a quick read on our phones. The harrowing nature of the story doesn’t end with what is done to Vanessa when she is fifteen. The work of unmasking the abusers, holding them to account is one thing. The act of coming to terms with trauma is a different track, a lesser explored narrative that My Dark Vanessa is deeply concerned with. It asks, what Vanessa should do with her past self, the version that grew up believing that what occurred between her and Strane was a love story? How does she detangle herself from a relationship that moulded her so completely without invalidating her sense of self?
Her view of herself, her own sexuality, the thing that she felt made her a Criminal is at odds with the narrative she is being presented with. To some degree, we all shed out younger selves and become new people as we grow older. But Vanessa is now having to come to terms with the idea that the person Strane built her to be never existed — she was never responsible or in control of any of the situations. She has spent her whole adult life trapped in this version of herself, unable to access it even in therapy until now. The title track of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a reference to the tv series, The Fall in which Gillian Anderson’s character, a detective, tells the police to the “fetch the bolt cutters” to break through a locked door and release a victim of sex trafficking.
The song, the whole album really, is about releasing yourself from a trap — something must be broken to get out. Vanessa has to break through the cocoon of that relationship which she has been caught in the web of for so many years. The texts sit side by side in a way that feels almost painfully tender: the books ends its journey in 2017. Strane is dead, killing himself as the storm threatens around him and leaving Vanessa to fetch her own bolt cutters. We are left with strands of hope for her: she is getting a dog, going to therapy, speaking openly to her mother again. I can picture this Vanessa, a few years into the future, screaming along to this album in the shower and perhaps finally feeling the full catharsis of someone else’s experience echoing a version of her experience, the clashing dark heart of it.
Sarvat Hasin was born in London and grew up in Karachi. She studied Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway and then took a masters in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford. Her first novel, This Wide Night, was published by Penguin India and longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Her second book You Can’t Go Home Again was published in 2018 and was featured in Vogue India’s and the Hindu’s end of year lists. She won the Moth Writer’s Retreat Bursary in 2018 and the Mo Siewcharran Prize in 2019. Her essays and poetry have appeared in publications such as On Anxiety, The Mays Anthology, English PEN, and Harper’s Bazaar. She works at the Almeida theatre. Her new novel The Giant Dark is forthcoming from Dialogue Books in 2021.