At age 70, Ralph Boyd is hardly the avatar of exemplary moral behavior. A renowned musician, Ralph decides that he must at least acknowledge the role he played in the seduction of 13-year-old, Daphne, the daughter of Edmund Greenslay, his best-friend's daughter. Daphne, a darling of 1970s London bohemia was only nine years old when Ralph arrived at Edmund's Putney house, ostensibly to collaborate on a musical project. A free spirit at the height of her powers, Daphne projected a "beautiful and pure love." Now Ralph is dying and perhaps intends to make amends to his long-suffering wife, Nina.
Middle-aged Daphne is constructing an art-piece about her life in Putney, inspired by her move back across London to the landscape of her early years. Daphne pictures her childhood as a sort of "golden age," at the center of which is the outlandish Ralph, who has pretty much disappeared from her life. Recently however, Daphne has been wondering if he should get in touch, especially given the central part he's playing in Putney. When the novel's third narrator, Jane, decides to reconnect with Daphne, she begins a slow-motion hunt for justice that is so gradual that Ralph doesn't even realize it's being pursued. For years, Jane has been haunted and disgusted by Ralph's actions, especially since he's never shown remorse. Worse perhaps is Daphne, with her talk of love and emerging unscathed like a "bloody one-woman pedophile's charter."
Zinovieff characterizes Ralph as an individual of minimal personal integrity, more oblivious than self-aware but \possessing a devious, self-centered masculinity. He's a smug, toxic male who can run from but not avoid the consequences of his past actions. His big mistake was selfishly acting out his youthful desires. While disastrous choices may seem to be second nature to Ralph, the coverup of his own devising will come at quite a cost.
Writing from the perspectives of Ralph, Daphne and Jane, Zinovieff explores the ugly ethical boundaries surrounding child sexual abuse. A woman's present life is haunted by the past, compounded with the daily stresses of raising an adolescent daughter who is still part child but now dangerously sexual. Daphne is dedicated to Libby but not confidant in her own abilities to let go of Ralph's abuse of her. We are free to observe Ralph and Daphne's trip to Greece, a vacation that reinforces their bourgeoning promise-filled friendship. Daphne experiences a mix of guilt, dread and pride from her involvement in this web of deception and adultery. From the streets of Athens and the port of Piraeus to the Ionian Islands, travel's familiar anticipation combines with the more dangerous elements of desire, "a new game of joy and pain" so intense that it frightens Daphne. Daphne's "lack of vocabulary" with Ralph makes their secret all the more powerful.
We never know for sure why her characters are the way they are, which brings us back to unsympathetic Jane. Enticing Daphne onto her side, Jane hatches a plan. She's spent the last decades removing herself as far as she can from Ralph's trajectory, but now it's like returning to "the Minotaur's labyrinth," back into the life of this cunning man. Of course, "justice must be done." Ralph denies that he ever did anything against Daphne's will: "we met as spirits, generous and pure."
A memorable figure, Daphne thrashes blindly towards a series of chaotic longings that she can't seem to control or follow through. Zinovieff delivers a desperate character-driven study in which Daphne no longer thinks of Ralph as some sort of "romantic floating character in the sky." How does Ralph see their story now? Does he harbor any doubts, or is he as sure as he was in 1976 when he committed adultery and child abuse simultaneously?
As the present is overshadowed by the past, the book's most contemporary scenes exist primarily as an entrée into Daphne's older memories and her slow journey towards redemption. Perhaps this is the point: that life is a series of delicate vignettes strung loosely together and the rest are moments from which we seem to hang. Can Daphne finally absolve Ralph? It's fascinating to watch as their dynamics play out from sex to love and then, perhaps, to forgiveness.