July 27 2018
Putney by Sofka Zinovieff — bridge of sighs
A man’s obsession with a young girl is recollected by both sides in a modern telling of ‘Lolita’
The front cover of Sofka Zinovieff’s second novel is a wink to Lolita, set against a backdrop of red buses and the bridge linking Putney to north London. The sunglasses perched on the head of a teenage Daphne, who lives in a ramshackle bohemian townhouse on the river’s south bank, also evoke Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film. These overt nods to Nabokov acknowledge a similar subject matter: controversial territory, and a taboo that requires fiction — uncensored in 2018 — to help make sense of it from multiple perspectives.
The novel’s three narrators are Daphne Greenslay, her school friend Jane and Ralph. Now an internationally feted composer nearing his 70th birthday, Ralph is undergoing cancer treatment; life has changed immeasurably since the 1970s, when his youth and potential seemed never-ending. Ralph was introduced to Daphne in his late twenties, when she was nine. She was, to him, “a boyish girl who ran and tumbled, an adventuring escape artist, a creature on the cusp”. The two developed an intense friendship, Daphne serving as a largely indifferent muse to Ralph’s burgeoning musical talent: “Teasing, moving like mercury, she knew how to disappear before you could get a grip,” Ralph remembers. “She laughed, skipped and slithered past them.” Amid the bustle, dinner parties and political activism at home in south London, Daphne’s parents don’t scrutinise their daughter’s attachment. And Ralph is adamant that their association was nothing but pure: “I worshipped Daphne, body and soul. I wasn’t some Humbert Humbert obsessed with nymphets.”
The novel comprises two distinct timelines: the beginning featuring Daphne, Ralph and Jane’s own recollections from 40 years before, and the second half taking place in the modern day. Daphne’s self-proclaimed “Dark Ages” in the intervening decades include a failed marriage, an unexpected pregnancy and addictions to drugs and alcohol. Now in her fifties, she lives with her teenage daughter Libby in a flat opposite the Greenslays’ old house, employed at a Greek tourism company, creating vibrant, mixed-media arts on the side.
One of these is Putney, a shimmering, velvet-strewn homage to her childhood, which she pictures as “a golden age, a marvellous jungle of a household . . . There had been no rules, no constriction, no bars. No bras either. And very often, no shoes.” Scattered among the trinkets of Daphne’s halcyon days — the presents Ralph gave her, the clothes they wore, the laminated tarot cards and scraps of silk — she depicts the man she once knew endlessly: “At the centre of this outlandish Eden was Ralph.” Her memories of that time are “tender”, and she feels “It had always been a secret, but not a dirty one. It was still precious to her.” However, when Daphne reconnects with her teenage best friend, Jane, the atmosphere shifts. Jane observes Putney and is instantly uncomfortable: “One of the doll-like Ralph figures had red flowers wreathed in his hair. He was leading the miniature Daphne across the bridge; a romance or an abduction?” This question forms the remainder of the novel’s deep psychological probing. Zinovieff interrogates the reader through these myriad voices to consider whether Ralph and Daphne’s relationship can represent both seemingly oxymoronic states. Romance or an abduction? This question forms the rest of the novel’s deep psychological probing.
Zinovieff moved to Athens in 2001, and her infectious interest in Greece and Hellenism more generally is present throughout a tale that takes place largely in the centre of the capital, though these aspects and their importance to Daphne and Ralph seem somewhat incidental, and could have been explored more. Daphne’s daughter, for instance, expresses concern for the refugees arriving in Greece and asks how her own trivial problems can compare: this battle between wider humanitarian crises and domestic, personal problems offered scope for a discussion about privilege and intergenerational understanding. Despite this, the differing styles of narration — Ralph’s poetic lyricism, Daphne’s slow-burning convictions and Jane’s no-nonsense, scientific mind — are sharply defined, and form an intriguing final portrait. It is a disturbing, well-structured, nuanced story that provides no simple answers — an important addition to an urgent, current conversation.