If art is intended to “disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,” as they often say, then I’m clearly quite pleased with my current societal position, because Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney, undoubtedly a work of art, left me discomfited to say the absolute least.
Putney opens in London’s swinging seventies, to a maelstrom of activity in the bustling bohemian townhouse of literary mainstay Edmund Greenslay, his wife, Ellie, a beautiful and glamorous Greek activist, and his children, most notably the precocious and sprightly Daphne, aged twelve. Enter Ralph, the charming young composer whom Edmund has enlisted to score his latest novel – and our story begins.
Ziniovieff divides the book’s three-hundred odd pages between the seventies – in the aforementioned townhouse, and, occasionally, the islands of Greece – and present day – both in the dilapidated flat Daphne currently resides with her pre-teen daughter and the hospital in which Ralph lays dying.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ralph has been invited to the Greenslay’s townhouse strictly for professional purposes, but from the moment he sets his eyes on the (yes, twelve-year-old) Daphne, he is unable to control his impulses. He embarks upon an obsessive quest for her attentions, showering her in gifts, writing her songs, and spending as much time in her presence as he can without arousing suspicion. His fascination turns rapidly to something more – there’s a reason The Guardian has branded the book as “Lolita for the age of #MeToo” – and the book’s first half devolves into the most uncomfortable love story you’ll ever have the displeasure of putting yourself through.
As Ziniovieff changes course to present day, Daphne, lonely and tired from years of post-Ralph partying and substance abuse, decides to reconnect with Jane, a childhood friend, and the only person beyond Ralph and Daphne with knowledge of the affair. As they rekindle their friendship, Jane presents her perspective of Daphne’s relationship as a disgusting abuse of power on Ralph’s part, and Daphne is forced for the first time to reckon with the truth of the situation. As Ralph, riddled with cancer and a shadow of his former self, is faced with Daphne’s confrontation, he himself sees a shadow cast not only over a situation he had never even considered feeling guilt over, but also the reputation he has spent decades building for himself and his family.
I would be hard-pressed to imagine defter literary hands than those of Zinioveff’s for dealing with such a weighty subject matter in a way that not only paid respect to the gravity of the lines between abuse and content and the importance of recognizing privilege, but also did so in a perfectly page-turning fashion; I blew through the book in a matter of days, and was left thinking about it for weeks on the end in the wake of my finish. While certainly not for the faint of heart, it is one of the most important books I have read in recent memory, and certainly a top five for 2018.
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