Cover Image: Putney

Putney

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This book was difficult to read at times - but that didn’t stop me reading it at every chance I had. The characters were well formed and felt real - it’s the characters that really made the book as you get to know them throughout.
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Putney by Sofka Zinovieff is a novel about grooming and abuse and power and childhood trauma and consequences.
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Described widely as “a Lolita for our times’, I went into this book with very heavy shoulders. Dangerous territory. The story revolves around Daphne, the young 9-year-old girl (at the start of the novel) who lives with her bohemian parents in 1970s Putney in a family setting that oozes with the spirit of free love, emancipation and free spirits.

Ralph is a 30-something year old man, a charismatic friend of Daphne’s father, who “falls in love” with the young girl. 

“Nine. You know, I think that might be the perfect age. A child at the height of her powers. Unafraid of herself. A noncomformist without knowing it. It’s a splendid thing to witness.”

Obsessed with her, Ralph embarks on a period of grooming and abuse of Daphne that lasts for years, only ending when Daphne becomes an adult – and a messed up, drug and drink taking, college fallout of an adult at that.

This novel is set in the present day and looks at these historic events from both Daphne’s and Ralph’s perspective, as well as that of Daphne’s best friend, Jane, who witnessed what happened and understands it for what it was – child rape – rather than first true love, as Daphne still sees it. 

The purpose of this novel, therefore, is to consider the impact of coming to terms with a traumatic past, and question the righteousness of pursuing justice so many years later.

What stands out about this book is its lack of anger. none of the characters have a moment of incandescent rage, even after profound revelations. Yet, contrast this with moments in the book that are sickening to read; to witness the rape and the assault when the victim/survivor tries to explain it logically away or frame it as an act of affection. It’s sickening.

This has to be the calmest book I’ve read on the subject and yet it has passages that are amongst the most horrific to read. With this in mind, then, this should obviously come with a content warning for those who will fond this triggering and / or upsetting.

As a result, this book is somewhat remarkable. It is uncomfortably realistic, the examination of societal and generational change is one of the best I’ve seen in books on this subject matter, and it has a frustrating ending – which, too, is probably appropriate also.

Away from the assault itself, the book it biting in its viewpoints – the anger I felt towards descriptive passages when the perpetrators describe their victims as adults – a painful reminder of how men judge women on appearance, and how youthfulness is so deeply entwined with our society’s depiction of sex appeal:

“There was no denying, however, that she was middle-aged. Long gone was the creature he’d worshipped… Hags unite, he thought.”

I can’t deny that this book raised my pulse more than once, which for a book – like I say – is written so calmly and so carefully – is quite something. However, this is not a book that gives you a high as well as a low; it leaves you sucker-punched. Powerful. A book that will stay with me but one I never want to read again.
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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.
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It is inevitably going to be compared to ‘Lolita’ - but as Putney is written through the eyes of multiple characters rather than just one, the story raises a lot of questions and has plenty of depth to it. 

Zinovieff switches seamlessly between the perpetrator, the victim and the victim’s friend, and it is interesting to read about events from their different perspectives. 

Although initially an uncomfortable read, particularly during Ralph’s chapters, I found myself racing through this book - immersed in the web of well-thought out characters and Greek scenery.
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I absolutely couldn't put down this disturbing, gripping novel. A timely story for the #metoo era with strong elements of Lolita, this book made for uncomfortable reading about the nature of sexual abuse, grooming, love, desire and the impact across a lifetime on a survivor. 

When 30 year old composer Ralph meets 12 year old Daphne at her bourgeois parents' home in Putney he is smitten with her wild-child antics and look. From the moment he masturbates in her tree house we know there is something very wrong with him. Obsession and desire grip him as he tries to possess her with toys and trinkets and treats, slowly coaxing her closer until their relationship becomes physical, culminating in them sleeping together on a trip to Greece when she's thirteen.

Forty years later, after a life of excess and addiction, Daphne has returned to Putney with her 12 year old daughter Libby and picks up again with an old school friend Jane.  Slowly Jane helps Daphne see her recollection of the past and what she thought of as a love affair with an older man was something far more grotesque. As other secrets and truths are uncovered, the nature of parental responsibility falls under the microscope as Daphne starts to see her whole life in a completely new light. 

This book was mesmerising, skilfully told from 3 viewpoints - Daphne, Jane and Ralph and flashbacks from Putney and Greece. The writing is as lyrical as any Homeric epic and the drama and tragedy something Aeschylus would have envied. 

This book was an incredible, thought provoking read and one of my best of 2018.
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I newspaper has called this novel the book everyone will be talking about in the summer of 2018; it has left this reviewer wondering should we be talking about it at all? 

It deals with sexual grooming, Ralph a composer in his late twenties being obsessed with nine-year-old Daphne. The novel sways through three voices and different time lapses. The novel is sure to be heaped with comparisons of a modern day Lolita but the question remains do we need or want a novel like this? I don’t want to avoid difficult subjects or pretend they don’t exist but it  is an incredibly difficult stumbling block to overcome to take anything from this novel. The novel is incredibly well written and offers a multitude of interesting emotions and questions it was just incredibly difficult to overcome. Any section with Ralph, the predator, is sickening hearing home compare his sexual romps as like having “too much chocolate”, it does become hard to contend with. The dialogue he uses constantly got itched away, he is obviously detestable but perhaps there is something in hearing his voice, his thoughts? 

This novel will stir debate but their isn’t any discussion points from the novel in terms of what is going on, its completely set in stone and its within that that leads to ask the question, what’s the point? Is it why he behaves this way? Do I really want to know? No matter how good a novel is written, if the questions after finishing question its existence then perhaps its not as worthwhile, I certainly wish I hadn’t read it and don’t feel any more knowledgeable or better for having done so.
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Eesh, this book made me squirm in discomfort and seethe with anger and yet also kept me completely engaged and fascinated. Sofka Zinovieff’s writing is beautifully fluid and evocative with richly layered characters and captivating settings.

It is cleverly written from three points of view – Daphne, her school friend Jane, and Ralph. We follow all three characters as the story alternates between flashbacks to the 1970s and present day London and Greece.

Daphne is a happy-go-lucky tomboy whose relatively alternative middle-class upbringing in Putney (where she has total freedom and calls her parents by their first names) instills in her an inner-confidence and maturity. Her sociable and liberal parents treat her as an adult from a young age, generally leaving her to her own devices.

“There was an assumption that each person, adult or child was free to come and go as they liked.”

As a young child and through her early teenage years she relishes the attention Ralph lavishes upon her, spoiling her with secret presents, taking her on day trips and smothering her with affection. In her eyes his presence in her life has always been pure and innocent, a tender relationship to be thought of fondly. But in adulthood, after reconnecting with her schoolfriend Jane, and as her daughter nears teenage years, she starts to question her relationship with Ralph.

“Who had been there to protect her?”

Jane has always been in awe of her best friend’s quirky family and bohemian household. She was the only one that knew about Daphne and Ralph’s relationship and is now still consumed with the guilt and burden of secrecy as they reach middle age. As a teenager, Jane is jealous of Daphne and yearns to be noticed and desired in the same way. Over the years her anger at the situation has intensified and she is determined to right the wrongs of the past. 

Ralph is an ego-driven, controlling and highly charming man; from a successful 25 year old through to an ill man in his 70s. Jane describes Ralph’s charm as irresistible to all, and even though she sees through his facade she is also taken in by his allure:

“It was seductive to man, woman and child, and she could see him using it like a tool.”

The author’s vivid descriptions of London in the 1970s sometimes have a slight dreamy and nostalgic feel, heightened by the sense of a “free love” anything-goes mentality that characterised the time.

“And you saw how both my parents were behaving. It was in the air”

“..the thing between Ralph and me wasn’t something I wanted safeguarding from. Of its time too, of course, but wonderful in its way.”

But these romantic notions of the time are quickly soured when we reflect on the reality of Daphne’s situation – there are moral boundaries that are definitely not ok to cross.

This is a powerful book which is confronting, infuriating and exquisitely done. It makes you question your views and judgements, constantly shifting your sympathies. It deals with difficult, provocative content but does so in a very honest and thoughtful way. A modern day Lolita in the #MeToo era.
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Author and broadcaster Greg Jenner has said that ‘good literature doesn’t need to be morally flawless.’ For the characters in ‘Putney,’ flawless morals don’t come into it- but this is definitely good literature. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s disquieting, daring and completely addictive. Can particular types of conduct ever be anything other than morally reprehensible? Do our nearest and dearest always have our best interests at heart? This novel may well make waves- and it certainly deserves to do so.
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Not for the faint-hearted, this novel deals with historic child abuse and its devastating aftermath. Both Ralph and Daphne have created an aura of golden memories around the relationship they had when he was 30 and she was 13, living in a bohemian environment of art, parties, hot tubs and secrets. Daphne's friend Jane was a jealous witness to the affair that bubbled on for years.  Ralph is now in his 70s, a successful composer but being treated for cancer. Daphne has struggled to hold down jobs, has had a disastrously misjudged marriage and issues with alcohol and drugs but in middle age has achieved a level of security - she creates fabric collages and lives with her adolescent daughter, Libby in a house opposite her childhood home in Putney. When she contacts her childhood friend Jane, the abuse she experienced is put under the magnifying glass. Jane, who is happily married with two sons, wants Daphne to confront her past and bring her abuser to justice.

An extremely difficult subject which raises the questions: Can what is perceived as 'love' by both abuser and child ever make sex between them acceptable? And can there ever be forgiveness? A finely nuanced and beautifully written novel told from the point of view of both women and Ralph himself. Although the subject matter is challenging, this is a very good novel.
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3.5 stars

There’s no doubt about the importance of the story being told here about sexual grooming, underage sex, power hierarchies and the role of legal processes in historical sexual abuse cases – but I do wish this book had been a bit more incisive in its treatment of them.  

In some cases it’s nicely subtle such as Daphne’s long-held refusal to face up to events which shaped not just her childhood but her future life: 

<blockquote>’There are laws and what he did is illegal. You were a child.’
‘But he didn’t force me to do anything. Ever. I did love him.’</blockquote> 
But to get to the heart of the story I felt I had to wade through a lot of extraneous family soap-opera not just related to Daphne and Ralph, who both have complicated family relationships filled with issues, but also Jane, Daphne’s friend who gets tangled into the main story in a not wholly believable fashion.

It’s interesting that Ralph is made a sometimes sympathetic character even while we recognise his selfishness, his self-absorption, his falsified way of making sense of his under-age sexual encounters to himself. He’s not malign but emotionally careless – which is no defence whatsoever.

So this is a thoughtful book about a sensitive topic – it just gets bogged down repeatedly in non-essentials so that less, in this case, would have been more: 3.5 stars.
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I thought Putney was an excellently written book with a lot of very good things about it.  Ralph, a successful composer his late 20s becomes obsessed with Daphne, the 9-year-old daughter of his friend in a shambolic, bohemian early-1970s household.  This eventually develops into a sexual affair between them when Daphne is around 13.  Putney is therefore a story of grooming and child sexual abuse, which has now been so often used as a plot driver in books, sometimes lazily and exploitatively, that I am always very suspicious of it in a novel.  However, Sofka Zinovieff tackles a difficult subject with clarity, insight and thoughtfulness, and many things about the book are excellent.  

The narrative is from three points of view, those of Ralph, Daphne and her friend Jane and often in the form of memories recalled in the present day – again something which is very fashionable and could be very annoying, but Zinovieff writes so well and with such control that it works excellently.  In the first half of the book she generates a sense of the "affair" as it seemed to the two of them at the time, with Ralph's self-deluding justifications and Daphne's naïve excitement and adolescent love for him.  Around half way through there is a very clever change in tone about half way as it begins to be seen through clearer, adult eyes and the consequences begin to be revealed.  

It is convincing and disturbing.  I think Zinovieff is very insightful about the whole thing and sheds real light on historical sex abuse as a whole, including the often confused emotions of those involved and the responses of those affected by the revelations.  The prose is wonderfully evocative and readable and she creates utterly convincing characters, sense of place and atmosphere.  I did have some reservations: the first section was rather too long, so that I got bogged down a bit, and the ending had rather too much reliance on coincidence and a slightly sentimental conclusion which didn't really match the clear-eyed reality of most of the book.  Nonetheless, Putney is both an important and thoroughly readable book, which I can recommend.
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This book made me mad, it made me anxious, it stressed me out with no end - and I could not stop reading it (I mean, except for frequent breaks to calm down). My Kindle died halfway through this book and I finished it on my laptop, which should give you an indication of how much I needed to get to the end.

This is story of Ralph and Daphne's developing 'relationship', only that Ralph is 25 and Daphne is nine when they meet. Told in flashbacks from three different perspectives, Ralph's, Daphne's, and her best friend Jane's, this story spans nearly 40 years. The book is unflinching it its portrayal; the characters are fully formed and human, which makes reading it all the more gruelling (for me at least).  Ralph is despicable, but (of course) doesn't see himself that way and reading about his justifications for his actions made me sick to my stomach. His characterisation is extremely well done and shows the brilliance of this book. Daphne is equally compelling and you feel sorry for her while wanting to shake her. I personally would have loved to spend more time with her because I found her inner workings the most fascinating. Jane's perspective did not always quite work for me but I can see how it was needed to give a bit of an outside perspective on the immorality of the 'relationship'.

Overall, the characters are what makes this book shine but there were other strengths as well. I admire Sofka Zinovieff's willingness to tell this story and found it provoking but needed. This novel deals with memory and its unreliability in a truly excellent way. She also deftly handles other topics such as mental health, classism, and female friendship. The framing of this story was very successful to me as somebody who loves stories jumping between different time periods in somebody's life.

I did feel the need to take a shower after this book, because even though the sex is never gratuitously described, spending this much time in a creep's head made my skin crawl. I am also not the biggest fan of some of the narrative decisions towards the end and thus was glad to have finished it. I am also very glad to have read it though.
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Sofka Zinovieff gives us a very relevant tale here, and one that should do well despite what can be seen as at times controversial material.  As this opens we are in the present, but this does take us back to the Seventies.  As the ageing Ralph Boyd enters hospital for his latest chemo treatment so he thinks back to the past and a young girl (nine when he first meets her) Daphne, whose father Ralph is doing a collaboration with.

For Boyd it was love, lust or obsession, however you like to think of it at seeing this young girl, and so we follow what happened from then on.  This tale doesn’t give us a one-sided view of events, as we meet other characters and their actions at the time, and into the present.  Because of this and the way this is portrayed this mirrors life as this shows how messy things can become.

As we read more so we see what Ralph, Daphne and other characters are like, and thus with a greater understanding we have to ask who is ultimately culpable for what happened between a young girl and an older man, and whether it could have been prevented long before any real harm was done.

Thought provoking this will make you think about child abuse perhaps in a different way, and also how attitudes have changed to the matter over the years.  As with a lot of things that are coming to light these days, how people think about things have altered, and thus reactions to historical crimes are now seen differently.  Thus with manipulation, and how people try to make things seem different in their own eyes to how they are, we have a story here that is not only relevant and a great read, but one that tries to put things into context without preaching and trying to make an overt point.  In all this should do well, making people think and talk, and thus would be a good choice for book groups.

I was kindly provided with a review copy by the publishers via NetGalley for reviewing purposes.
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