Twenty-something composer Ralph Boyd is an up-and-coming composer in 1970s London when Sofka Zinovieff’s richly involving new novel Putneybegins; he’s making his way to the Putney residence of grandly popular novelist Edmund Greenslay’s house in order to embark on a collaboration, creating a musical score for the theatrical adaptation of Greenslay’s hit novel Oedipus Blues. Zinovieff’s novel is suffused with atmosphere – despite its lurid main plot, some of the book’s best scenes are pure exercises in atmosphere – and this begins right away, with Ralph entering the world of the Greenslays:
When Ralph arrived at the house in Putney, it was with his battered rucksack packed with the tape recorder and tapes. He walked from his cramped attic flat in Earls Court through a soggy, English version of a summer afternoon. The sky appeared to have a hangover: headache and queasiness held in place by a stained eiderdown of clouds. In those days there had always been too much to drink or smoke the night before.
His host cuts an intentionally bohemian figure (like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, readers are told), but it’s another member of the family who surprises Ralph with the strength of the first impression she makes: Greenslay’s nine-year-old daughter Daphne:
She was dressed in ripped shorts and a striped T-shirt and wore no shoes. Ralph took in the grubby feet, the burnished skin that must have recently seen more than English sunshine, the muscular limbs and unbrushed, almost black hair. Teasing, moving like mercury, she knew how to disappear before you could get a grip.
Readers who finish the novel and reflect on those opening scenes will perhaps find it darkly fitting that Daphne is introduced in terms of beguiling poison, but initially the plot unfolds into uncomfortable territory with exquisite directness and confidence. Ralph is immediately aroused by Daphne, and his arousal surprises and dismays him, and the two begin a protracted friendship that shades imperceptibly into flirtation and seduction.
As if this combination weren’t combustible enough, Zinovieff then adds time: the narrative jumps forward decades, when Daphne is now a grown woman with a daughter of her own, Ralph is now a world-famous musician living in Putney himself, and the picture that emerges of just how badly their lives have been derailed by that much-earlier relationship is further complicated by both Ralph’s and Daphne’s subtle unreliabilities when it comes to their emotional states or their own memories. Ralph in particular showcases youthful entitlements curdled into self-justification. “Yes Daphne was young, but so was I,” he whines to himself. “It was my youth too – not just hers. Our story had nothing to do with abuse. To link them is like pouring filth on flowers, like denying the power of love.”
Zinovieff orchestrates her book’s headlong climax with a careful mixture of drama and restraint, with sunny Greece playing host to scenes of pathos and emotional contortion. At no point does the narrative stoop to simplicities of blame and amends; everything stays refreshingly, disturbingly more complicated than that. Putney is a story about the long shadow abuse can cast on the lives of all involved, but it consistently works on intellectual and emotional levels in order to tell that story, leaving hymn-book moralizing for lesser treatments.