Described widely as “a Lolita for our times’, I went into this book with very heavy shoulders. Dangerous territory; and not unfamiliar territory either for, though admittedly this book was published back in 2018, the publishing industry has seen a flood of titles examining sexual abuse, rape, assault etc. In fact, I would honestly say that I’m sent about one a month to read.
That’s pretty exhausting.
Individually, I have appreciated that all of them have brought something new, an interesting angle, to the debate, whether it is Lisa Taddeo’s seminal Three Women that is comprised of true stories of abuse told by the women themselves, or Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa that frames a story of abuse from the young girl’s perspective as she matures and comes to fully understand what she experienced, or Kate Reed Petty’s much-anticipated True Story that looks at the fallout of a rape where the victim was unconscious.
The question then is, what is special about Putney? And is a novel framed as a contemporary Lolita going to be a problem for us today?
The story revolves around Daphne, the young 9-year-old girl (at the start of the novel) who lives with her bohemian parents in 1970s Putney in a family setting that oozes with the spirit of free love, emancipation and free spirits.
Ralph is a 30-something year old man, a charismatic friend of Daphne’s father, who “falls in love” with the young girl.
“Nine. You know, I think that might be the perfect age. A child at the height of her powers. Unafraid of herself. A noncomformist without knowing it. It’s a splendid thing to witness.”
Obsessed with her, Ralph embarks on a period of grooming and abuse of Daphne that lasts for years, only ending when Daphne becomes an adult – and a messed up, drug and drink taking, college fallout of an adult at that.
This novel is set in the present day and looks at these historic events from both Daphne’s and Ralph’s perspective, as well as that of Daphne’s best friend, Jane, who witnessed what happened and understands it for what it was – child rape – rather than first true love, as Daphne still sees it.
The purpose of this novel, therefore, is to consider the impact of coming to terms with a traumatic past, and question the righteousness of pursuing justice so many years later.
“And then I saw the peculiar disconnect that happens when young girls play with sexiness. I do realise it’s normal – what they all do – what we all did. But it’s like a game, like practicing before the real thing. And I thought about me at eleven or twelve and about Ralph. And sleeping with him when I was only thirteen. And it was like being punched in the stomach.”
What stands out about this book is its lack of anger. none of the characters have a moment of incandescent rage, even after profound revelations. Yet, contrast this with moments in the book that are hard to read; to witness the rape and the assault when the victim/survivor tries to explain it logically away or frame it as an act of affection. It’s sickening.
This has to be the calmest book I’ve read on the subject and yet it has passages that are amongst the most appalling to read. With this in mind, then, this should obviously come with a content warning for those who will fond this triggering and / or upsetting.
As a result, this book is somewhat remarkable. It is uncomfortably realistic, the examination of societal and generational change is one of the best I’ve seen in books on this subject matter, and it has a frustrating ending – which is probably appropriate also.
Away from the assault itself, the book it biting in other observations, such as descriptive passages when the perpetrators describe their victims as adults – a painful reminder of how men judge women on appearance, and how youthfulness is so deeply entwined with our society’s depiction of sex appeal:
“There was no denying, however, that she was middle-aged. Long gone was the creature he’d worshipped… Hags unite, he thought.”
I can’t deny that this book raised my pulse more than once, which for a book that is written so calmly and so carefully is quite something. However, this is not a book that gives you a high as well as a low; it leaves you sucker-punched. Powerful. A book that will stay with me but one I never want to read again.