My support for authors taking risks with controversial subjects, mentioned in the intro, is in the context of people being free to choose what (or what not) to read. I chose to read Putney, but I can’t review it without commenting on how very unlikely it was that I would end up championing a novel which centres on child abuse, a subject I usually go out of my way to avoid. (Sometimes you don’t know in advance, of course – at least this is not one of those cases.) My consequently rare responses have tended to be on the scale: unbearably upsetting/depressing/gratuitous/offensive; the only reason for mentioning this is that Putney, whilst at times deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, did not have this effect.
I spent an entire day thinking about what makes this novel different. It’s due in no small part to the articulate quality and elegance of the writing, which gave me confidence from the first page; it could easily be overlooked, but the Greek locations in this book are beautifully evoked. The issues are not sanitised or lent respectability by the privileged, if bohemian, social setting; nor are they rendered less shocking by Daphne and Ralph’s reciprocal illusions of love – although this does raise interesting points about the wider human tendency for self-deception and the role of memory and the sub-conscious. It is a superb example of integrally woven back story, and it is psychologically astute.
What distinguishes Putney is the subtlety and rigour of the author’s interrogation of this risky and controversial premise, balancing three narrative perspectives. There are inevitably moments which will make the reader flinch, but this isn’t cheap provocation for its own sake and it doesn’t trade in clichés, although I felt the ending could have been stronger. It’s a novel which begs to be discussed even if, on the face of it, there shouldn’t be that much to say. Interestingly, given what Sofka said above, I did take an instant dislike to Ralph; his ability to seduce some readers (or make them waver/suspend judgement) didn’t work on me at all – that doesn’t matter, what does is that I was deeply invested in the drama and the outcome. I find it impossible to predict the reaction of anyone I know to the nuances of character and situation, and for all these reasons, this is a novel I admire and highly recommend.