Zinovieff does well in requiring her readers to see the relationship from Ralph’s point of view as well as Daphne’s. The novel pulls off a tricky juggling of voices and times so elegantly that you may not notice when a new voice is heard 30 years before or after the preceding one, but it is worth attending to the technical skill behind its music ... It is rare to find oneself reading so compulsively a book that promises no resolution or easy answers; I admired this combination of intellectual honesty and bravura storytelling. The conclusion, when it comes, is morally satisfying and plausibly complex: there is no betrayal of the novel’s architecture for a neat ending ... the 40-year time frame, the large cast and the changing points of view lead to the occasional dumping of information needed to get you to the next time and place, and there is an assumption that readers know London intimately. But these are small quibbles about a novel that is accomplished, timely and unusually well wrought.
Zinovieff interrogates the reader through these myriad voices to consider whether Ralph and Daphne’s relationship can represent both seemingly oxymoronic states [romance and abduction] ... the differing styles of narration— Ralph’s poetic lyricism, Daphne’s slow-burning convictions and Jane’s no-nonsense, scientific mind—are sharply defined, and form an intriguing final portrait. It is a disturbing, well-structured, nuanced story that provides no simple answers—an important addition to an urgent, current conversation.
Thought-provoking and relevant, Sofka Zinovieff’s new novel Putney will provide plenty of book groups with fodder for discussions about female sexuality ... The story is a nuanced portrayal of the relationship between a 30-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl, but it’s less Lolita than an homage to The Constant Nymph ... Putney may not ultimately offer justice, but it does offer closure, which for some victims may be just as cathartic.
Zinovieff is skilled at evoking the shifting moral and social terrain—things were permissible in the 1970s that would be unacceptable now—while never letting us forget that none of that can be an excuse: Daphne was a child and Ralph was a grown adult. He is self-deluding and monstrously selfish, but Zinovieff finds ways of making him intermittently sympathetic before reminding you once more of all the ways he used Daphne for his gratification. Jane’s chapters, though featuring one of the more disturbing moments in an already queasy book, are not seamlessly integrated; her exchanges with Daphne are a little too on the nose for a novel that otherwise avoids absolutes. But the two main players are richly drawn, the strange, sad bond that still exists between them convincingly realized.
...richly involving ... Zinovieff's novel is suffused with atmosphere—despite its lurid main plot, some of the book's best scenes are pure exercises in atmosphere—and this begins right away ... Zinovieff orchestrates her book's headlong climax with a careful mixture of drama and restraint ... At no point does the narrative stoop to simplicities of blame and amends; everything stays refreshingly, disturbingly more complicated than that. Putney is a story about the long shadow abuse can cast on the lives of all involved, but it consistently works on intellectual and emotional levels in order to tell that story, leaving hymn-book moralizing for lesser treatments.
Following Daphne foremost, as well as Ralph and Jane, Zinovieff’s novel is a nuanced, thought-provoking plunge into the questioning depths of consent and exploitation. Readers start to see the ways Daphne’s life was altered by Ralph’s intrusion, which grows more insidious as pages pass, before she does. Yet Zinovieff still crafts suspense from Daphne’s present-day realizations, as she peers into her now-different past and confronts the potential abyss of exposure. Contemplating also youth’s undying phantom and memory’s refusal to remain fixed, Putney is a discussion starter.
It’s the 1970s and rich, successful Edmund’s idea of parenting is relaxed, to say the least. In this permissive environment, well-evoked by Zinovieff, the relationship between Ralph and Daphne secretly flourishes ... Told from...three vividly established points of view, and traveling back and forth between the 1970s and today, the novel makes a convincing case for how the anything goes ethos of that earlier decade can lead to a reckoning decades later.
Zinovieff is obviously working with themes playing out in contemporary culture, but her novel is also reminiscent of the work of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt. Like these English novelists who precede her, Zinovieff is interested in the dynamics of families who see themselves as outside the norm, and, like Murdoch and Byatt, she is concerned with moral dilemmas that don’t have easy solutions. Deciding to let Ralph, Daphne, and Jane each have their say in alternating chapters makes it possible for the author to present the full complexity of her subject. Timely and nuanced.