A Life in Books – Review of Putney

July 20 2018
 
Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: Where are the grown-ups?
 
The press release for Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney proclaims it to be this summer’s must read which made me wonder if it might be one of those slip-your-brain-in-neutral beach reads you see piled up at the airport but that proved not to be the case at all. Instead, it’s an intelligent, subtle novel which explores the fallout of sexual abuse all wrapped up in an engrossing piece of storytelling, so good that I included it on my Man Booker wish list.
 
When young composer Ralph visits the Putney home of a successful novelist keen to see his work put to music on stage, he catches sight of Daphne and is immediately aroused by her boyish beauty. Daphne is nine and Ralph is twenty-seven. Ralph begins to pay visits to Daphne when her parents are out, bringing her presents, writing her love notes and telling her that their friendship is to be a secret. It’s some time before Ralph kisses Daphne but when he offers to take her to visit her mother’s relatives in Greece he knows exactly what he plans to do, telling her it’s to be an adventure. Daphne is twelve and he is thirty. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, sexual and otherwise, airily pronouncing that it’s up to their children to find their own way and looking anywhere but what is happening under their noses.
 
Forty years later, Ralph is still married to Nina, still cherishing memories of Daphne as a child as he undergoes chemotherapy, oblivious to the chaotic, rackety life she’s led as an adult. Ensconced in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home, Daphne works on a collage commemorating her time with Ralph prompting her to get in touch with her childhood best friend. It’s Jane who points out to Daphne that her own daughter is the same age Daphne was when Ralph met her, and Jane who leads Daphne to an understanding of what happened to her. What ensues echoes the historical abuse scandals that dominated the headlines not so long ago.
 
This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill. She unfolds her story from the perspectives of Daphne, Ralph and Jane, flashing backwards and forwards from the ’70s to the present day. Each character is carefully and credibly realised: handsome, successful Ralph seems far from a monster but his depravity is slowly unfurled, his self-delusion maintained to the end. Daphne’s grooming is both chilling and believable. As Zinovieff switches from character to character so our understanding of the damage Ralph has done deepens. Daphne’s daughter with her social conscience and her disgust with Ralph is a bright counterpoint to the devastating consequences of his behaviour. Putney is a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.