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Sofka Zinovieff is English, of Russian heritage, and is married to a Greek man. She grew up in Putney, a suburb of London, and has lived in Greece, Russia and the Peloponnese.. She is about the same age as Daphne, the main female character in her novel Putney, who both lives there now and who grew up there. Daphne has an English father and a Greek mother, and visits Greece often. So while there is no indication that this is an autobiographical novel, it's clear that Zinovieff uses some of her life experience to inform her novel. In addition to her experience of different cultures, she has a PhD in anthropology, which makes sense in that she seems particularly concerned about the variability and arbitrariness of moral rules from culture to culture and from one era to another. It's not a novel to take a strong moral stand, which is a bit surprising since its main topic is romance and sex between an adult man and a young girl.
The novel starts out in the present day, or close to it, with Ralph in hospital, undergoing cancer treatment, and taking comfort in his memories of Daphne. Soon it moves to the past, the 1970s, when Ralph first met Daphne and fell in love with her. He was 27 and she was 9. He is a composer and he is visiting a successful novelist to discuss making a musical play out of the novel. In their Putney house, he meets Ed and Ellie, a couple who live a bohemian life rejecting conventional values. They have few rules for their two children Daphne and Theo, and say that children need to find their own way. Ralph soon befriends Daphne, regularly giving her gifts and keeping small secrets with her. He has few barriers with her, and their relationship becomes physical. Eventually, when she is 13, he engineers a trip with her to Greece, and they first have intercourse. They keep on seeing each other for the next few years, until an unexpected event drives them apart.
In the present, we learn about their lives since then. Ralph had married Nina when he was in love with Daphne, and they had three children. He went on to become a successful composer, well known for his musical compositions, some of which he tells Daphne were inspired by his time with her. In contrast to his life of success, her life has been more difficult. She had problems with drug and alcohol use, and a brief marriage to a wealthy Greek man. They had a daughter, Libby, who is now 12. Daphne doesn't have much of a job, but she earns money by making jewelry and other crafts and selling it to people she knows. She and Libby have moved back to Putney after some time in Greece, and she is working on an artwork celebrating her childhood, which she calls "Putney." Ralph features heavily in this work, as a kind of hero.
It seems that Daphne still accepts the justifications of the relationship that she learned with Ralph. It was love, it was special, other people would not understand, and it was a different time when people were more free. She articulates no regret about it all, and indeed thinks that Ralph enriched her life. But then she meets up with Jane, who was her best friend in childhood. They haven't seen each other for decades. Jane is married and leads a more conventional life. Jane is appalled by the "Putney" artwork and asks Daphne how she would feel if her daughter Libby was enticed into a sexual relationship by an adult man. This gets Daphne thinking about the past and reevaluating what happened. Jane pushes Daphne to call their relationship what it was, grooming and sexual abuse, and urges her to go to the police to report Ralph.
Putney is an unusual work in that it raises the question of how bad Ralph is, and what makes his actions wrong. Was he a man who followed his feelings without regard to conventional morality, concerned to be respectful of others but ready to enjoy pleasure when he could? Or is he a monster who preyed on young people and took advantage of them? Is the automatic condemnation in the current world of romance and sex between men and children just a product of fads and fashions, and a distraction from more serious social problems, or is it, on the other hand, a advance of moral consciousness that recognizes the way that men in patriarchy abuse their power by exploiting the vulnerable?
By the end of the novel, Zinovieff seems to have come down reasonably firmly on the side of condemning all sexual relationships between men and girls, but being a novel rather than an essay on morality, there's room for multiple interpretations, and she seems to have some reservations about the utility of prosecuting men for crimes they committed decades ago. By the end of the novel, Ralph is dead, but the cause of his death is a bit mysterious. There's even a chance that Daphne's daughter Libby might have had a role in seeing justice done, but this is hardly even hinted at.
Zinovieff's writing flows well, and the reading of it by Michelle Ford in the unabridged audiobook is an enjoyable listen. There are many excruciating moments, especially the descriptions of the time that Ralph first has sex with Daphne, but the writing manages the difficulty sensitively, keeping her prose simple and giving insight into how both of them experience their coupling. It is a risky work, that some have called brave. It is certainly going to be hard reading for those who dislike even the possibility of moral debate and investigation of relationships such as that between Ralph and Daphne. It is definitely not in any sense meant to provide a justification of them, but it does provide a psychological understanding of why they might be appealing for both the man and the girl. It also explores not only how those relationships can be emotionally damaging for the young person, but also how the stories that people tell themselves in trying to justify them are deeply self-deceptive.
We might wonder to what extent this novel has social relevance. The kind of relationship that Ralph and Daphne have seems very unusual, is different from the ones that Ralph ends up having with other young people, and from the ones that commonly get revealed in the media when yet another aging male is exposed as having taken advantage of his position of power in having sex with young people. Putney is exploring more of a theoretical possibility or a rare kind of bond between a man and a girl. There's something a little other-worldly about its cast of characters and the Anglo-Greek life that it describes. But then it never pretends to be an expose of the ugly truth faced by thousands of children in the actual world.
The strength of Putney is that it explores controversial and emotionally wrenching issues with intricate characterization and moral complexity. It is an intriguing work that deserves a wide readership.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.