When English composer Ralph returns to London after months capturing sounds round the Mediterranean, he meets up with novelist friend Ed and Ed’s Greek wife Ellie. It’s the 1970’s and life is very bohemian. Ralph is immediately struck by Ed and Ellie’s 9 yo daughter Daphne - a wild sprite of a child. Ralph marries Greek Nina. They end up with three children and a forty year marriage. However, Ralph is very good at compartmentalising, and it doesn’t stop him having a magical love affair with Daphne which becomes sexual when she is thirteen. Thus the scene is set for a very thoughtful story about paedophilia. Zovka Zinovieff is very good at showing us how such a relationship between a child and an adult may be viewed by both of them as pure and not quite of this world.
But of course, there has to be secrecy and evasion and later events show that the affair has done damage. Daphne becomes a chaotic anorexic druggie wild child (though we never see this part of her life much), and it takes her years to pull herself together and provide herself and daughter Libby a stable life. Her childhood friend Jane re-enters her life, and encourages her to see the affair with Ralph as child abuse. Daphne goes to the police and a charge is laid. By this stage, Ralph is 69 and has cancer. The reputational damage to his career is set to be huge. When it goes public Daphne’s family wonder why she never told them. As readers, we ponder the wisdom of raising children with unconcerned freedom. Daphne puts away the fabric collage she has been making, showing her childhood self and Ralph with a Chagall-like innocence.
When Ralph breaks down in front of Daphne and seeks her forgiveness she drops the charges, much to the frustration of the police. Then Jane drops her own bombshell, as do two young male musicians Ralph worked with. Zinovieff knows that the recesses of the psyche are many. It can take a long time to know ourselves and our murky motivations. This is a very wise and thoughtful book with many well-realised and interesting characters. As a meditation on people’s behaviour and blindnesses it’s brilliant. The descriptions of life in Greece are by turns enchanting and depressing as Greece faces economic crisis and a huge influx of Syrian refugees (who are aided by Libby and her American father Sam). Highly recommended.