A novel attempting a contemporary Lolita is bold but unconvincing

by Anna Rogers / 20 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Putney Sophie

Sofka Zinovieff: lacks the control required for such an explosive and dangerous subject. Photo/G Vdokakis

A 27-year-old man obsessed with a nine-year-old girl … Lolita, of course. Echoes, of course. Comparisons, of course. But the reader of Putney, the second novel by acclaimed English non-fiction writer Sofka Zinovieff, is not at the mercy of a manipulative narrator and protagonist. This story is written in the third person from three points of view – and Ralph, Daphne’s seducer, is no Humbert Humbert. And this is a book authored in a post-Jimmy Savile world.

The novel opens with Ralph, much older and terminally ill, remembering his first meeting with Daphne. It took place at the wild and unsupervised home of her parents, English father Edmund and Greek mother Ellie, leading lights in bohemian 1970s London. From there, chapters are shared between Ralph, Daphne and her childhood friend Jane, as the story moves between past and present.

To the despair of a clearly overwrought Jane, the adult Daphne refuses to allow that, as a child, she was sexually abused by a much older man. She insists that Ralph’s persistently inappropriate behaviour, secret gifts and elaborate trysts, even when he was married and a father, were purely, as he said, expressions of love. Eventually, and suddenly – unbelievably suddenly – Daphne imagines her own young daughter in such a situation, turns against Ralph and, egged on by Jane, reports him to the police. The plot rattles on rather too melodramatically – it turns out that Jane was raped by Ralph, who also had sexual encounters with men – and ends rather too neatly.

A good deal in Putney succeeds. Zinovieff wonderfully evokes the atmosphere of London, both past and present – you can almost smell the Thames – and some of the Ralph and Daphne scenes provoke the necessary squeamish fascination. The writing is generally good and readable, but there is an inescapable sense that this author is not entirely comfortable in her fictional skin. The clearest manifestation of this is a far too frequent need to explain.

The first description of Daphne hints at this. After the “flitting animal movements; narrowed, knowing eyes; dark, tangled hair” and so on, Zinovieff adds, needlessly, “The risky element was part of the pleasure.” At one point, Ralph concedes “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”. Much later, he wonders how to thank his heroically accepting wife, Nina, “for being here at the end when I’ve been revealed as one of the disgraced – a social leper of the worst sort, who raped a child. Repeatedly. And never realised it till now.”

Zinovieff lacks the considerable degree of sophistication and control required for such an explosive and dangerous subject. She does not always credibly calibrate the requisite disgust and disquiet, the precarious balance between knowingness and obsession. The shifts in attitude and behaviour – for Daphne, Jane and Ralph – are too creaky and abrupt. The publisher, naturally, has summoned the shade of Nabokov in the publicity, and words such as “bold”, “daring” and “complex” will be used, but Putney, though a brave, interesting and in many ways admirable attempt, does not, in the end, convince.

PUTNEY, by Sofka Zinovieff (Bloomsbury, $32.99)

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Daffodils is a charming, bittersweet and tuneful piece of Kiwiana
103864 2019-03-22 16:20:19Z Movies

Daffodils is a charming, bittersweet and tuneful p…

by Russell Baillie

Aren’t pop musicals meant to be all sweetness and light? No, not if Daffodils is anything to go by.

Read more
Bill Ralston: The keyword is tolerance – even of those we disagree with
103852 2019-03-22 12:37:05Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: The keyword is tolerance – even of t…

by Bill Ralston

Neither evasive nor hate-filled words are needed in the Christchurch mosque-killings aftermath.

Read more
How young New Zealanders are demonstrating their inclusiveness
103832 2019-03-22 09:47:50Z Social issues

How young New Zealanders are demonstrating their i…

by The Listener

Kiwi students provide an inspirational example of how to embrace diversity in the wake of – and even before – the Christchurch attack.

Read more
I never thought I could be in danger over my beliefs – until Friday 15 March
103824 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Social issues

I never thought I could be in danger over my belie…

by Fatumata Bah

I heard the stories and anecdotes of racism faced by my fellow sisters in hijab, but it was never at the forefront of my mind every day.

Read more
How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more