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.

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