Review by Dolores Maund.
Before beginning Putney the responses on the back of the book alerted me to the nature of its concern – the sexual abuse of a girl child. This immediately brought to mind the only other book which I have read which deals with this same topic, that is, Vladimir Nabakov’s much acclaimed Lolita, which was first published in 1955 and which I read sometime during the tumultuous 1970s. For this reason, while reading Putney, and later while thinking about this important and timely book, I could not but compare it with its famous precursor.
In Putney Zinovieff carefully examines the dramatic changes which have taken place within the zeitgeist from the time of the publication of Lolita and my reading of it some twenty years later on the one hand, to the greatly enlightened contemporary understandings of child sexual abuse with which we are familiar today, on the other. While sexual relations between an adult and a child have long been regarded as a social taboo and a moral wrong of mammoth proportions in modern western society as well as in many others it is only in recent decades that this particular social ill has come to the fore of public discussion. It is this airing of society’s dirty linen which has made for a much greater understanding of the psychological make-up of the adult involved – or the perpetrator of sexual child abuse as such a person has now come to be described – and the massive social, psychological, emotional and lasting damage invariably done to the child.
Zinovieff’s story begins in London during the 1970s, a time of enormous social upheaval throughout the Western world and beyond, a time when all social conventions, particularly those relating to sexuality and the family, were challenged as being unhealthy, repressive constraints on the freedom of the individual. Fidelity within marriage – and within sexual relationships in general – along with traditional notions of child rearing practices were abandoned by many in the name of such freedom. In addition to this radicalism, at this time the huge interest in psychology, an interest which permeates every aspect of contemporary society and has done so for decades, had not yet developed. Even for those of us who were adults during the 1970s it is difficult to now imagine or properly remember an absence of such magnitude in the social imaginary. Zinovieff shows how the social climate of that radical decade almost facilitated perpetrators of the sexual abuse of children: the stage was set for such, as it were. Ralph, the abuser in Putney, exhibits all the characteristics of a classic narcissist – a trait which is part of the psychological make-up of all perpetrators and without which such people could not act as they do. Zinovieff elucidates the ways in which the particular social climate of the 1970s not only allowed narcissism in its many and varied guises to go unquestioned but gave it a licence to flourish. In this regard her interpretation of important aspects of the era is both novel and acutely observed indeed.
In Putney Zinovieff has been able to blend sophisticated psychological insights and a clearsighted understanding of all aspects of the phenomenon under discussion in an extraordinarily imaginative way. The characters she creates are so superbly conjured that they loom large in the mind’s eye long after finishing the book. She has a highly developed capacity in this regard as she does in her ability to create vivid images of the places and the different eras during which the story takes place. Putney is immediately and immensely absorbing which meant that from the moment I began to read I had to close out the world and devote myself to the book. While Zinovieff is a generous spirited writer and presents her characters as flawed human beings rather than monsters there is absolutely no doubt as to the reasons for her moral condemnation of this age-old social ill that has for far too long been relegated to the ante chambers of society’s mind. In Putney Zinovieff demonstrates the way in which the novel can serve as a brilliant vehicle for the illumination of a social ill. It is not possible after reading Putney that anyone could justify or condone Ralph’s behaviour by saying “But he loved her” as a woman said to me of his counterpart in Lolita at the time of my reading of that disturbing and memorable book. Zinovieff’s careful examination of all aspects of the roles played by both the perpetrator and the abused child along with the effects of their relationship on each of their lives contrasts starkly with Nabakov’s almost total neglect of the effect of sexual abuse on Lolita, the girl in his story. Putney is indeed a much needed contribution to this most important of topics and will undoubtedly enrich all who read it.