Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

Putney was a spontaneous lunch time read last week, when I suddenly realised that I'd left my current book at home. Normally a book with a front cover like this, and a blurb that says,

Up-and-coming composer Ralph is visiting Edmund Greenslay at his riverside home in Putney to discuss a collaboration. Through the houses's colourful rooms and unruly gardens flits nine year old Daphne - dark, teasing, slippery as mercury, more sprite than boy or girl. From the moment their worlds collide, Ralph is consumed by an obsession to make Daphne his.

would be enough to put me off.
Yuk! Right?

Yet by the end of my lunch hour, I had devoured several chapters and couldn't wait to read more! It was exactly as Fiona Melrose said on the back cover, 'you will be seduced, regret the seduction, swap sides, feel complicit, question yourself and the characters...yet never feel manipulated.'

I'm not going to give too much away, except to say that Putney ended up being quite a roller-coaster ride or outrage, disgust and confusion.

It's fairly easy to imagine the why's and wherefore's of my outrage and disgust, but the confusion is harder to pin down.

Part of the success of the Zinovieff's story is when she reveals how maturity, experience and knowledge can change our perspective on the things that happened to us as children. I've always enjoyed stories that explore the fallibility of our memories and the power of the stories we tell ourselves, regardless of how factual they are. Putney gives us this in spades. But it adds to the confusion. Whose memories do we trust?

I was also somewhat confused about the purpose the story. What do we actually learn from Daphne's 'emotional archaeology'?

Is it justice versus mercy?
Forgiveness versus revenge?
Hope versus despair?

Big themes indeed!

Even though the sections towards the end, on modern day Greece and the refugee and economic crisis, felt like a bit of an add-on, I still found them intriguing. Perhaps they served to remind us of even bigger injustices and even more wide-scale despair than this personal tale of three voices?

Or maybe Zinovieff was highlighting the Greek tragedy elements at play in her story?

It's hard to see Ralph as a tragic hero, essentially good and admirable, but we do feel some confused pity and fear for him (thanks to our early knowledge of his impending death) as his fatal flaws are revealed. Ralph's hubris and transgression of a moral law are the driving force of the story.

Our characters visit Thebes (which link the story to Oedipus' flawed humanity and the idea of free-will versus destiny) as well as Pelion (the home of Achilles and again the idea of a fatal weakness with the possibility of homosexual love).

Jane, Daphne's best friend, is not only the witness, the chorus and the Fury, but she is also the nemesis wreaking vengeance throughout the story.

Ralph finally experiences anagnorisis (doomed comprehension & insight) while Daphne gets to enjoy a sense of catharsis (emotional cleansing) at the end.

Without realising I was doing it, I may have written myself into Zinovieff's raison d'être. After a quick google refresh of my high school Ancient Greek class, it now seems so obvious to me that everything about Putney is a Greek tragedy. I wish I had worked this out earlier, but it does explain the lasting impact and power of the story. And I am now even more impressed at Zinovieff's very modern, masterful and subtle handling of a very ancient tale.

It's also why I love blogging about the books I read, for these moments of connection, deeper understanding and revelation! It was Pelion that did it. The book I was reading, but had left at home, the fateful day I picked up Putney, was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I was struck by the coincidence of reading two books at the same time that refer to the same small town in Greece.

Putney wont be for everyone. Grooming and child sexual abuse are not easy topics to recommend. But here I go telling you just how extraordinary Putney is anyway, and if this is not a trigger topic for you, then please don't be put off by the idea of a story about paedophilia. It's worth the ride. It's certainly a book you won't forget in a hurry.

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