Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: Where are the grown-ups?

Cover imageThe press release for Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney proclaims it to be this summer’s must read which made me wonder if it might be one of those slip-your-brain-in-neutral beach reads you see piled up at the airport but that proved not to be the case at all. Instead, it’s an intelligent, subtle novel which explores the fallout of sexual abuse all wrapped up in an engrossing piece of storytelling, so good that I included it on my Man Booker wish list.

When young composer Ralph visits the Putney home of a successful novelist keen to see his work put to music on stage, he catches sight of Daphne and is immediately aroused by her boyish beauty. Daphne is nine and Ralph is twenty-seven. Ralph begins to pay visits to Daphne when her parents are out, bringing her presents, writing her love notes and telling her that their friendship is to be a secret. It’s some time before Ralph kisses Daphne but when he offers to take her to visit her mother’s relatives in Greece he knows exactly what he plans to do, telling her it’s to be an adventure. Daphne is twelve and he is thirty. It’s the ’70s and Daphne is the child of bohemian parents caught up in their own affairs, sexual and otherwise, airily pronouncing that it’s up to their children to find their own way and looking anywhere but what is happening under their noses.

Forty years later, Ralph is still married to Nina, still cherishing memories of Daphne as a child as he undergoes chemotherapy, oblivious to the chaotic, rackety life she’s led as an adult. Ensconced in a flat a mere stone’s throw away from her childhood home, Daphne works on a collage commemorating her time with Ralph prompting her to get in touch with her childhood best friend. It’s Jane who points out to Daphne that her own daughter is the same age Daphne was when Ralph met her, and Jane who leads Daphne to an understanding of what happened to her. What ensues echoes the historical abuse scandals that dominated the headlines not so long ago.

This subject could so easily have been mishandled. Salacious details, stereotypical characters, black and white judgements – it’s a minefield but Zinovieff explores her subject with consummate skill. She unfolds her story from the perspectives of Daphne, Ralph and Jane, flashing backwards and forwards from the ’70s to the present day. Each character is carefully and credibly realised: handsome, successful Ralph seems far from a monster but his depravity is slowly unfurled, his self-delusion maintained to the end. Daphne’s grooming is both chilling and believable. As Zinovieff switches from character to character so our understanding of the damage Ralph has done deepens. Daphne’s daughter with her social conscience and her disgust with Ralph is a bright counterpoint to the devastating consequences of his behaviour. Putney is a thoroughly accomplished novel, both thought-provoking and absorbing. I take my hat off to its author for tackling such a tricky subject with compassion and intelligence.

16 thoughts on “Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: Where are the grown-ups?”

  1. I’ve added this to my tbr list but having just finished The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney I think I’ll leave it a while before I read another novel about child abuse.

      1. I need to pace myself with dark stuff. Yes, I would recommend it but maybe I found it interesting as I could relate to being brought up in a Catholic working class home. Not sure it would have universal appeal but themes of social mobility etc struck a chord with me.

  2. I think I heard this mentioned on Woman’s Hour the other day – as always happens I missed most of the interview and assumed that Putney was the name of the protagonist! First thoughts on reading your review were that I hoped the composer wasn’t supposed to be Vaughan Williams; fortunately the era would be wrong. I read the first in Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose series a while back and found the whole thing so excruciating that I won’t be reading any more of them – even though I should feel sympathy for the boy who was abused. And a very long time ago (1978?)I didn’t enjoy Lolita It’s a difficult subject to think about and read about but this sounds like a definite one for the tbr pile.

    1. I gave up the Melrose series, too bleak for me I’m afraid. It is a difficult subject but Zinovieff handles it with such a sensitive intelligence that the novel works beautifully. I hope you enjoy it.

  3. Sounds intriguing. Was tempted to buy it by the name alone (I live in West London) but your review has whetted my appetite even further.

  4. I requested (and received) an ARC of this book but must say, it was done with trepidation – I was worried the subject matter would be poorly handled (I would not have hesitated abandoning the book if so). I’m most reassured by your excellent review.

    1. I felt much the same, Kate, but it’s done with a good deal of sensitivity. Ralph’s character is particularly well drawn, not monstrous but ever more chilling as the extent of his depravity and obliviousness of it is revealed. I hope it works for you.

  5. I would be reluctant to pick this up both for the subject matter and the fact that it’s described as a summer must-read. But as usual you’ve convinced me Susan! It sounds a very sensitively written book on such a tough subject matter.

    1. Glad to hear I’ve convinced you! It’s not a subject that would usually attract me, I have to admit, and I think that ‘must read tag’ is a little misguided.

  6. You convinced me……..and I’m so glad you did! I read this book in a gulp, in a day and I thought it was fabulous. So sensitively handled, so well written, thought provoking and compulsive reading. I think this would be great for a book group, one where you all knew each other very well, so much to discuss! Thanks , Jenny

    1. Delighted to hear that, Jenny, and you’re spot on about a book group novel. There’s so much to discuss here both in terms of style and content. Thanks so much for the feedback!

  7. A tricky subject for sure, but the author seems to have handled it with a great deal of thought and sensitivity – that’s very clear from your review. Having grown up in the 1970s, I’m roughly the same age as Daphne, so the era and cultural setting would definitely resonate with me. Thanks, Susan. I shall add it to my mental list of books to consider when I’m in the mood for a contemporary read!

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