The first time Ralph sets eyes on Daphne he’s attracted to her. He intrigues her too; she’s delighted that this idiosyncratic, charming acquaintance of her father’s, a talented composer, seems so intensely interested in her. Eventually they embark on a relationship.
The problem is, Daphne is a child. She is barely into her teens and Ralph nearing 30 when they first have sex. At the time she believes this is love; this is how grownups behave. It’s only years later as a middle-aged woman with a young daughter of her own that Daphne starts to explore the idea that their relationship was abusive, that Ralph was a predator who took advantage of her, repeatedly, who raped her.
Sofka Zinovieff’s second novel embraces ambiguity. It delves deep into the discussions surrounding consent and abuse of power. She has written a contemporary Lolita in which the rules of engagement have changed, women are speaking out about the ways they have been misused and the Humbert Humberts face prosecution and disgrace.
The narrative shifts between the past and the present, between London and Greece (Zinovieff’s evocative prose is scented with herbs and the fug of Athenian traffic fumes) – from the hazy, sun-dazed 1970s, when Ralph and Daphne’s liaisons take place, and the chillier present in which both end up questioning the nature of their relationship.
Zinovieff gives as much space to Ralph’s perspective as to Daphne’s. She also writes from the point of view of Daphne’s friend since childhood, Jane. Ralph, ageing and undergoing chemotherapy, still clings to the idea that there was something pure and beautiful about what he regards as a love affair. Even though her life went spectacularly off the rails as an adult, Daphne is reluctant to view what she went through as traumatising or damaging. It’s Jane who persuades her to press charges.
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 realised.