The Putney of the title of Sofka Zinovieff’s novel is a district in southwest London where, in the late 1970s, the Greenslay family live in a grand but ramshackle house. Edmund, the father, is a successful novelist. Ellie, the mother (short for Eleftheria), is a political activist, keen on reclaiming her Greek homeland from the generals who rule it; occasionally she takes time out from her cause to provide excellent food and gnomic advice to her children and the various other friends and hangers-on who shuffle through the house. The children are Theo, who plays almost no role in the novel, as if to symbolize the possibility that someone could escape their past, and Daphne, who is nine when the novel opens but a teenager during its most important years.
If Daphne is modelled on her mythical counterpart, then Apollo must be Ralph Boyd, a composer who first comes to the house to work on a project with her father (he is writing the score for a theatrical version of one of Edward’s novels). The relationship between the two men is fruitful, the production a success, the composer (then aged 30 with a wife—herself Greek—and a young child) installed as a friend of the household.
Another book might have focused on the collaboration between the two men, but artistic creativity, though omnipresent (Daphne later becomes an artist herself, sewing intricate fabric collages based on her life experiences), is always in the background. Instead Putney is about desire: the moment Ralph sets eyes on Daphne he wants her, even though at first he doesn’t know if she is a boy or a girl. “A sprite,” he concludes, relishing the fantastic, even mythological qualities of that designation. Then he gets a closer look:
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. She laughed, skipped and slithered past them [Ralph and her father], through the front door that was still ajar and out along the garden path to the road. Without turning, she flicked one of her hands as if dismissing both men.
His intestines juddered. Then, bewilderingly and somewhat shockingly, the beginning of a hard-on. He squatted down to the floor and opened up the backpack to gain time and distract Edmund, who was gazing after his daughter and laughing.
“Daphne’s a free spirit. As you can see.”
Ralph smiled, trying to disguise his turmoil … Ralph had never been attracted to children, or at least not since school. He had not ogled young girls or prowled in parks. This was something different from anything he he’d known. Beautiful and pure and powerful. The beginnings of love.
This cataclysm is immediately compared to the more ordinary coup de foudre that comprises the story of how Edward and Ellie met: here, and throughout the novel, inappropriate feelings and experiences are set against appropriate ones; the juxtaposition serves a dual function—what’s appropriate both hides and highlights what’s inappropriate. This play of hiding and revealing is a bit like the use of free-indirect discourse. We might mistake a sentence like this one from the middle of the passage—“Teasing, moving like mercury, she knew how to disappear before you could get a grip”—as omniscient, but on closer examination we see that the sentiment must be Ralph’s (that “you” is his way of trying to generalize his response—he is the one who needs to get a grip). Although sexual desire is present in his first response to Daphne, for several years their relationship is odd, unsettling, intense, but not fully or clearly wrong. That changes when he begins sleeping with her when she turns 13.
The distinction between what is acceptable and what isn’t gets to the heart of the book’s concerns. Zinovieff is interested less in the nature of desire than in the permissiveness of a bohemianism that itself was about to vanish with the advent of neoliberalism. A good thing about Putney is Zinovieff’s refusal to simply satirize or critique that bohemian milieu, so proud of its apparent transgressiveness that it countenances child abuse, even if only by ignoring or being unable to see what is happening right in front of it. Which isn’t to say that Zinovieff excuses that blindness. But she considers both the enabling and disabling aspects of permissiveness. As the novelist Esther Freud puts it in her blurb, the book’s subject matter is “the blurred area between consent and abuse.”
In this regard, the novel is more hopeful than the myth to which it occasionally but not dogmatically alludes. The fate of the nymph in the myth is, as is typical of such stories, double-edged at best: Daphne escapes Apollo’s pursuit only by becoming a tree. (A laurel, which in a move that transforms suffering into art, becomes the symbol of poetry.) Putney offers its Daphne a better fate. Although her early adult life is unhappy, even desperate, in ways that she only later realizes are connected to her experiences with Ralph, she comes through these travails to a place of acceptance. This conclusion is abetted by her own teenage daughter, Libby, who has found her own meaning by dedicating herself to working with her father, himself Greek, to help the refugees from the Middle East who wash up on the shores of Europe. (What is it, by the way, with all these sensible teenage girls? Maybe I have this on the brain because I’m still making my way through Anniversaries. But my sense is that teenagers are more often than not sources of wisdom and levelheadedness in the books I’ve been reading. Where are all the sullen, pain-in-the-ass teenagers?)
More ambivalent is the fate of Daphne’s childhood friend Jane, who is a figure without any counterpart in the myth, but important to the novel. Regrettably, her importance is mostly mechanical. Jane’s home life is the opposite of Daphne’s: ordinary, sensible, unimaginative, loving in a more dependable way than her friend’s. Each is drawn to the other’s life. But Jane much more so than Daphne. Daphne takes Ralph’s attentions—which, as Jane later points out, is really grooming, that is, the way the adult predator prepares the underage object of their desire for sex—as her due. Elaborate, (seemingly) spontaneous gifts aren’t out of place in her world. Neither is the waywardness of adult attention—which makes her all the more drawn to Ralph’s constancy. We don’t see much of Jane’s life—only enough to see the contrast to Daphne. But we know that physically Jane is more ungainly, more like an actual teenager than Daphne. No one would confuse Jane for a sprite. Even as an adult—thinner, highly competent, a successful scientist with two well-adjusted grown children—she tends to clump through the world, as Zinovieff’s descriptions of her as a dedicated but plodding runner suggest. She has the same graceless function in the novel: to make things happen, to keep secrets before revealing them at the right moment for the plot to take its next turn. She is more function than character.
When Jane and Daphne reconnect in middle age—the present of the book; the past is offered in reflections that occasionally become full-on flashbacks, as if Zinovieff can’t quite decide how directly she wants to present the past—Jane is the one who encourages Daphne to reassess her relationship with Ralph. Initially, Daphne thinks fondly of her relationship with Ralph: it was something special, the high note of a sometimes feral, sometimes magical, but always free-spirited childhood. At Jane’s prodding, she begins to reassess these experiences, especially once Jane asks her the question she somehow has never asked herself: what would she think if a man Ralph’s age spent so much time with Libby?
Zinovieff convincingly portrays the way people can seemingly suddenly reverse their most-cherished opinions, even their very sense of who they are. There’s a nice scene in which Daphne sees Libby and her best friend getting ready to go to a party—she sees that the girls have a sexual power they don’t yet understand and aren’t ready to wield; reconsidering the experiences Ralph forced her into (not just the sex, but a whole repertoire of roles she was asked to fill: muse, vagrant, seductress, delinquent), she now understands them as having been more harmful than exciting.
The portrayal of Ralph is similarly cunning, though here we have, instead of a sudden moment of enlightenment, a continual, though increasingly hard to maintain, blindness to the consequences of his actions. Ralph is a master of compartmentalization. Zinovieff pulls off quite a trick in convincing us of his initial claims—offered as much to himself as to Daphne—that his passion for the girl is simply different from his love for his wife and family. They’re both valuable, he insists, both necessary to him, both beautiful. As I write these words now, I see how self-serving and creepy they are. But for a surprisingly long time Zinovieff keeps us open to the possibility that Ralph isn’t harming the child. Eventually, as we learn more about him, we see him as a damaged and harmful person who is caught up not, as he prefers to believe, by changing, increasingly puritanical times, but by an inability to maintain the compartmentalization that has governed his whole life.
There’s a lot to like about Putney. It takes a “ripped from the headlines” situation (prominent artist revealed as a pedophile, a sexual aggressor, a predator who used the power of his age and experience to abuse his victims) and turns it into a consideration of social and sexual liberalism. The most interesting moments, for me, are when Daphne asks herself (and even, in one scene, her father) what her parents had been thinking the whole time. Why did it suit them to let a man escort their teenage daughter on a thirty-hour bus trip across Europe? What did they make of the little presents he regularly brought their daughter? Of the afternoons they spent together wandering the streets and parks of Putney? The answers are unclear: Ellie is dead, from cancer, and Edmund unable to comprehend what Daphne is asking him.
I don’t think the novel would have been better if Zinovieff had given us an answer—if she had, for example, included sections from the parents’ point of view. It matters that we don’t know, because it insists on the necessity for interpretation but also the impossibility of final judgment. (Which is different from the legal and emotional need for certainty and judgment experienced by those who have been abused.) If anything, what the novel needs is a little more clarity about its own interest in obscurity.
Earlier, I quoted Esther Freud’s praise for the novel. I suspect I might have thought of her even if I hadn’t read her blurb. For Putney reminded me of Freud’s wonderful novel Hideous Kinky (1992), an autobiographical depiction of a bohemian mother who takes her young children to Morocco in the early 1970s in search of spiritual and sexual enlightenment. Hideous Kinky isn’t doing quite the same thing as Putney. There’s no question of sexual abuse in the earlier book, for example. But it too explores the costs and gains of an unconventional, non-bourgeois childhood. Yet it has more to say about the ambivalence of such unconventionality for children’s well-being.
Freud’s book is better than Zinovieff’s because it makes more of uncertainty. It is narrated by a very young child—she’s only about five. Amazingly, Freud never makes this scenario cute or cloying. Instead, she asks that we read with and against her narrator, so that we have a more rounded sense of what is behind the child’s vivid but inchoate experiences of wonder, fascination, and abandonment. Our response to her mother is more complicated than our response to Ralph; more akin to our response to Edward and Ellie, except that Freud pays more attention to her than Zinovieff does to them.
Probably because I used to teach it, I think of Hideous Kinky quite often (and I wonder why I haven’t read the rest of Freud’s work—I really should rectify that). I’m not sure I would teach Putney (even setting aside any worries about how difficult some students might find the subject matter). I’m not sure it’s as intelligent a book. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel that Zinovieff is even more taken with the Greenslays than Jane is. Yes, most of the time she is even-handed when it comes to their world, showing us both its pleasures and its failures. But I don’t think she really countenances Jane’s ordinary life as a real substitute. It’s not even that the life she has built for herself is in some way scarred by what we learn Ralph did to her. Rather, it’s that this life just isn’t very interesting to Zinovieff. She does her best to be dispassionate about bohemia, at once celebrating and critiquing, but in the end she’s in thrall to it: the former triumphs over the latter. There are, after all, plenty of descriptions like this one:
He followed her down a staircase, past walls plastered with photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings in an open-ended collage. They entered a spacious, bright yellow room where maybe a dozen people sat at a refectory table or sprawled in armchairs. The scene spoke of unhurried pleasures: bottles of red wine, coffee cups, ashtrays, orange peel, the remains of a circle of Brie in its balsawood box. Open French doors looked out through a mass of overgrown honeysuckle towards the river.
I see nothing here asking us to question these pleasures: the passage seems to value the leisure (“unhurried”) that attends them. The life that is made out of these pleasures—along with the very idea that life is a product of pleasure—is characterized by plenitude and creativity: the making of something like art from everyday materials (that collage, which can always be added on to, “open-ended”); the “spacious: room in which people “sprawl,” even the “mass” of honeysuckle, which seems carefree and luxuriant rather than ill-kempt and oppressive.
Zinovieff isn’t saying that the world which foregrounds these sensual pleasures (the Brie in its little box) has in some way caused the sexual abuse that is carried on in its midst. Nor does she say that those pleasures excuse that abuse, quite. But she does say the pleasures are real pleasures that she likes a lot. Like the brilliant cover of its American edition (so much better than this horror), Putney wants to separate the pleasures of succulence (here, a perfect strawberry) from the possibility of decay. But this is the very separation that in its most compelling moments it demands that we challenge.