Me too Me too Me tooTue 26 Jun
PUTNEY by SOFKA ZINOVIEFF. London, Bloomsbury, 2018.
Women writers of domestic fiction remain beyond the pale of established critical acclaim. Less recognised than their male counterparts, yet nonetheless dominant in the contemporary literary scene.
Sofka Zinovieff is such a writer. Putney is her latest novel. To say that it resembles Fifty Shades of Grey is to say that it follows the conventions of the classic bourgeois novel: it has characters, interiority, analysis, descriptions and a plot. It also has a theme that excites controversy, child sexual abuse.
The main protagonist is Daphne, mother of a 12-year-old girl, pretty and alluring as a child and one assumes as a woman also. Her antagonist is Jane, dull by name, dull by nature. Podgy and plain as a child, we assume she is podgy and plain as an adult. Daphne relies on Jane for stolid support and reliability. Good old Jane. Except Jane has a secret, too. (That's the "plot" bit, so mum's the word on that.)
Daphne’s secret is a “love affair” with her father’s best friend and musical collaborator. It began when she was nine years old. He was a grown man, a charming, hedonist who adores her and pays her the attention paedophiles are so expert in applying.This section of the novel is set in the Seventies when Jimmy Saville was fixing it and the Paedophile Information Exchange was passing itself off as a campaigning group. They even managed to fool a high-profile Labour politican.
Back to the novel. Now in their fifties, Daphne and Jane reunite. Saville has been outed. There is more awareness that children have not been protected from predators for the most part of the last century at the very least, and Jane spends a lot of her time trying to persuade Daphne that her relationship with Ralph was not some prelapsarian rites of passage but child sexual abuse (CSA). Therein lies the problem with this novel. We know now that the paedophile grooms the child into thinking he or she loves her or him, and that what they are doing is perfectly normal and nice, but then again best not to tell anyone, dear, or else. There really are no grey areas in the CSA zone. But Zinovieff valiantly ploughs her way through her story trying to dig some up. The best she can manage is rivalry between plain Jane and tantalising Daphne.
Zinovieff’s publishers are marketing Putney as “bold and provocative … [it is] about the moral lines we tread, the stories we tell ourselves and the secrets we bury”. I assume by this they mean that Zinovieff presents each character’s inner world. For example, she gives us the reasoning of a paedophile as he homes in on his prey, or later, tries to avoid confrontation and responsibility. She gives us the confusion of survivors and the trauma of lost memories and a lost childhood. So, yes, she gives them all a fair hearing. But I can find no meaningful insights, no real drama in the struggle to unlock the past, no real empathy or understanding.
It is as though the world of Cath Kidston has received an uninvited guest from the Socialist Workers’ Party. A fragrant and pretty surface meets a truth-seeking militant. That’s when it gets ugly (poor old Jane).
It doesn’t feel to me as though Zinovieff has done her research. Disclosures of child sexual abuse are often tentative, involve some telling and then some retracting. They can be partial or full, and occur over decades after the event. Age, gender, the type and duration of abuse, relationship to the perpetrator, family dynamics, availability of support, especially from one’s mother, all these factors impact on a survivor’s ability to disclose sexual abuse. Pertinent to Daphne’s case, studies have found that among children aged from three to nine abuse was usually discovered through the child’s inappropriate or sexualized behaviour. Paedophiles are known to look out for tell-tale signs, characteristics that Zinovieff gives her heroine in abundance.
As a child gets older, she or he is also more aware of paying the price of the disclosure. Daphne the adult is faced with Ralph the perpetrator now an old man with terminal cancer. Prosecution will involve his unknowing wife and children and affect his status as a respected composer. For a child, imagine the horror of these possible outcomes: his or her family torn apart, reputations shattered, and would anyone believe his or her allegations anyway? These dilemmas are posited by Zinovieff as potential roadblocks to adult Daphne’s journey to justice. Will justice be served? Can it be served?
Does Zinovieff really understand that a child has no complicity in his or her abuse? The jury is out. But Justice has to be served. We need to talk about CSA, and Zinovieff does at least succeed in bringing to light some of its horror and some of the redemption of survival. At least we can thank her for that.
Review by Lilian Pizzichini