Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff is a novel about Daphne and Ralph, who at the start of the novel are reminiscing about their relationship, which took place around 40 years ago in the 1970s. Ralph is undergoing treatment for cancer and looking back on his youth, while Daphne, now a single mother after conquering various addictions, is an artwork for an exhibition which depicts the two of them as a happy couple in the setting of Daphne's old family home, a rambling, bohemian house by the Thames that always seems to be full of artists, activists and eccentrics.

Ralph is a composer and Daphne is the charismatic, free-spirited daughter of a friend, a famous writer. Obsessed from the moment the pair meet, Ralph becomes determined to win her over despite her lack of interest in him - but this isn't just a novel about a doomed relationship built on an idealised infatuation. Because when they meet, Ralph is 27 and Daphne is nine. And by the time Daphne is 11 or 12, their relationship has become physical.

As you can doubtless imagine, Putney is often an uncomfortable read (and I would suggest you give it a miss if this subject matter happens to have a more personal resonance for you, as it doesn't shy away from the detail).

Large sections of the story are told from Ralph's point of view, and Ralph is absolutely adamant that he isn't a paedophile - he hasn't, he says, ever been attracted to a child before, and insists that his attraction to Daphne is founded on his love for her mercurial personality and charm. It's also clear that Daphne is besotted with Ralph, and indeed, at the beginning of the book, the adult Daphne shares the view that the 70s were simply a different time and that Ralph did nothing wrong. She was in love with him. she says, and knew exactly what she was doing.

It's only when the now middle-aged Daphne reconnects with her old childhood friend Jane, who is shocked that Daphne doesn't look on her relationship with Ralph as an abusive one, that she starts to reconsider. Daphne's own daughter, after all, is now 12, and it's obvious to Daphne that for all her high heels and makeup, she's only playing at being a grown-up. Eventually, strongly encouraged by Jane, Daphne starts to view Ralph differently. But what, exactly, is Jane's real motive in getting involved? Does she really have Daphne's best interests at heart?

The real strength of the novel is the way Zinovieff constantly makes us re-examine the characters and their behaviour. At no point did I think Ralph was anything other than a predator - but what sort of predator was something I found myself changing my mind on several times as the story unfolded. And what about Jane - sensible, solid Jane, envious of Daphne's slender beauty, fascinating family and apparently unlimited freedoms? Could it be possible that her obsession with seeing the now elderly, terminally ill Ralph charged and Daphne forced to testify is more motivated by long-suppressed childhood resentments than genuine concern?

This is a brilliantly well-written novel, with characters who are entirely credible in their complexity - sometimes infuriatingly so. I have a slight issue with a couple of elements, not least the speed with which Daphne goes from thinking Ralph was simply an unsuitable boyfriend to firmly believing him to be a predatory paedophile, a change of heart I think would have been a much more gradual process. It's also, frankly, a stressful read: you will want to grab Daphne's kind but ultimately negligent parents and shake them for not seeing what's going on right under their noses, for example. But that aside, this a gripping, sometimes heart-breaking and ultimately thought-provoking novel that asks the reader an awful lot of difficult questions.