A novel that interrogates the intersection of love, desire, and abuse. Ralph Boyd, a renowned avant-garde composer, is in his 70s and fighting cancer. Daphne Greenslay has emerged from a few volatile, precarious decades into middle-aged peace. She’s a single mother, living across the Thames from the home where she lived as a girl. Daphne is also an artist, and she’s working on a piece about her unconventional childhood.
Ralph figures prominently in this dreamlike, Edenic collage. Daphne’s parents were upper-class bohemians—her father a writer and her mother a Greek expat involved in radical politics—and Ralph was part of their circle of friends, comrades, and acolytes. Instantly captivated by the dark-haired, dark-eyed, and slightly feral child Daphne, Ralph made himself her confidant and special friend as he made her his muse. He also made her his lover. Or he raped her. Zinovieff’s (The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, 2015, etc.) novel turns on the rupture between these two ways of viewing the past. For Ralph, the girl Daphne is a talismanic figure. His love for her is unique and pure, and memories of their trysts sustain him through the pain and indignities of chemotherapy and old age.
For Daphne, Ralph is a significant player in a romanticized version of her childhood, her relationship with him one of the more benign parts of her wild history. Then Daphne reconnects with her one-time best friend, Jane, who encourages her to see Ralph in a new and damning light. Zinovieff is obviously working with themes playing out in contemporary culture, but her novel is also reminiscent of the work of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt.
Like these English novelists who precede her, Zinovieff is interested in the dynamics of families who see themselves as outside the norm, and, like Murdoch and Byatt, she is concerned with moral dilemmas that don’t have easy solutions. Deciding to let Ralph, Daphne, and Jane each have their say in alternating chapters makes it possible for the author to present the full complexity of her subject. Timely and nuanced.