Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

A few years ago I read a book that was well-written, demanded conversation, and was extraordinarily memorable. And I didn’t recommend it to a single person. Because it was harrowing and devastating and exhausting – you have to be ready for that. Putney by Sofka Zinovieff falls into the same category.

It is the story of composer, Ralph Boyd, who begins a relationship with a very young girl, Daphne. Daphne is nine when they meet, she becomes his muse, and he begins a sexual relationship with her when she is thirteen.

His pursuit of her and their union had the power of one of nature’s wonders, like salmon swimming upstream against the crashing river or birds flying thousands of miles. These things appear impossible, but they are not.

Daphne confides in her best friend, Jane.

The secrecy and the lack of vocabulary to describe what they were doing made it all the more powerful, as if the concentrated emotions were never diluted by being spoken about or revealed.

The story is told from three perspectives – victim, perpetrator, and witness – and shifts between the 1970s when Ralph meets Daphne, and the present, when Daphne and Jane re-establish their friendship and their talk leads to Ralph, now world famous and dying from cancer.

Zinovieff’s story examines the change in social standards and expectations over time – what was accepted (or ignored) in the 1970s, is not now. To be clear, this applies to the circumstances under which Ralph and Daphne met and his continued access to her, which was never questioned by Daphne’s parents or other adults – Zinovieff does not suggest that the abuse was acceptable.

Ralph’s justifications and platitudes about his relationship with Daphne are familiar and well-worn. Read through the lens of the current MeToo movement and the numerous legal cases seeking justice for people abused in their childhood, Putney is chilling, frightening and true.

Nobody was in favour of children being abused – of course not. But there was madness in the pseudo-psycho-babble world where people got post-traumatic stress syndrome after stubbing their toes and where students needed ‘safe places’ to discuss their syllabus.

There is no sure-footing for the reader, yo-yoing between the 1970s in Daphne’s bohemian childhood home to what we now hold true and the result is a story that is emotionally complex and expertly crafted. Ralph, looking back on the relationship, maintains that their love was pure, and therefore feels no remorse.

He realised that others might not understand their unusual relationship, but this only indicated that it could be added to the long list of literary and actual lovers who were forced into shadowy hiding places. There was only beauty in this thing that had engulfed them.

And Daphne, despite a life that has all the hallmarks of someone who has suffered trauma, does not attribute it to Ralph.

“…it didn’t damage me. I loved him. And he loved me. What happened with Ralph was one of the many complicated things in my life. Actually, probably one of the less traumatic. It was an intimate relationship with someone older. End of story. Not everything fits into the tidy boxes society lays out for us.”

There were many other elements of this book that I thought were exceptional – the role of mothers (particularly Ellie, Daphne’s mother); the use of Greece as a setting for critical parts of the story, which gave particular events a mythical or other-worldly frame; Daphne’s slow and realistic awakening to the extent of her trauma; and the suspense – ever-present but executed with such restraint that nothing about this novel felt gratuitous or unlikely.

She’d never deny that she loved Ralph, but a bright spotlight now gave that era a different appearance. She had been far too young to understand what was happening when she was swept into the deep waters of a love affair… looking back, she could see that twelve or thirteen or even fifteen are not ages for being taken seriously by men of thirty.

4.5/5 Gripping.

I received my copy of Putney from the publisher, Bloomsbury, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

She pictured her mother nonchalantly throwing together vast pies filled with spinach and feta, while entertaining friends, drinking wine, bringing up children and plotting against dictatorships.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 14): Belfast 10°- 22° and Melbourne 8°-17°.

15 responses

    • Agree. Ralph in particular was such a convincing character – can’t imagine how difficult in would have been for the author to get into the right mindset each time she wrote Ralph’s parts of the story!

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    • No, she doesn’t say it was acceptable at all. Quite the opposite. What she shows is how this vile man very carefully groomed the girl (for four years before he raped her) – we call it grooming now but in the 1970s it didn’t really have a name, but obviously still happened.

      I have had many discussions with women since the MeToo movement about our experiences as children and teens (in the 1970s and 80s). Every single woman I know can recall at least one ‘dodgy’ situation – a friend’s dad who was a bit creepy and therefore we didn’t like sleepovers at that friend’s house; the neighbourhood ‘weirdo’ who would garden in the nude or flash you; being groped on public transport; a work colleague ‘flirting’. These are common experiences and they are happening all the time. The younger generations are calling them out and good on them. But this is what my friends and I discuss – did those experiences ‘damage’ us? Were they ‘traumatic’? (There are no easy answers). But this is the point of the book and from a female perspective it is fascinating.

      Rest assured, the character of Ralph is not approved of in any way.

      • Before I read Lolita I thought it was about entrapment, but it’s not, it’s about grooming and I’m not sure Nabokov wasn’t writing approvingly. And I couldn’t handle the idea of a woman writing the same sh*t. So I’m glad I was wrong.

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  3. Yes a truly extraordinary read that is hard to recommend. It feels weird to say you loved or really enjoyed such a story, but ultimately I did. The journey was uncomfortable but also unforgettable.

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