Wednesday 17 August 2022

Is This Love? by C E Riley @ceriley7 #IsThisLove @serpentstail #BookReview


J's wife has left, and J is trying to understand why. How could someone you loved so much, who claimed to love you once, just walk away? How could they send divorce papers accusing you of terrible things, when all you've ever done is tried to make them happy?

Narrated by J in the days, weeks and months after the marriage collapses, and interspersed with the departed wife's diary entries, 
Is This Love? is an addictive, deeply unsettling, and provocative novel of deception and betrayal, and passion turned to pain. As the story unfolds, and each character's version of events undermines the other, all our assumptions about victimhood, agency, love and control are challenged - for we never know J's gender. If we did, would it change our minds about who was telling the truth?

Is This Love? by C E Riley was published in hardback on 4 August 2022 by Serpent's Tail. My thanks to the publisher who sent my book for review. 

Written in a style that is most unusual, and that I believe is described as first person (referral), this is a book that totally consumed me. I read it in a couple of sittings in one day. It is engrossing, and lyrical, it is brutal and sometimes violent, but it truly is an outstanding read. One that I will think of and ponder for a long time. 

I am a fan of the unreliable narrator and Riley takes hers to the extreme. J is the first narrator, talking to their wife. The woman that they love and adore, that they married and hoped to spend the rest of their life with, and also the woman who has just broken them by telling them that they want a divorce. It is emotionally challenging as we are privy to J's innermost thoughts, to their total and utter confusion and later to their bitterness and anger.

J describes in detail how they met and fell in love with their wife. The whirlwind romance, the almost immediate sharing of a home, the quest to find the perfect house, the toil and hard work whilst J took time out of work to create the dream home that their wife desired. The wife is described as somewhat forgetful, scatty almost, not really responsible, but still adored by J, who would do anything to make her happy. 

And then, we read the court papers prepared by J's wife. We read what she has accused J of, her accounts of controlling behaviour, physical abuse, gaslighting, and we realise just how one story can have more than one perspective. 

The reader feels almost voyeuristic at times. It can be uncomfortable to read J's painful account, the soul searching, the utter despair, the descent into behaviours that seem out of character, but are justified by the pain that J is experiencing. 

The fact that we never know J's gender is a triumphant twist to this finely detailed story of a marriage and how it has broken beyond repair. Whilst reading, I imagined J as both male and female, and it's easy to form opinions entirely on the basis of gender. This probably proves that no matter how inclusive and non judgemental we are in our lives, there is a deep, hidden bias within us all. 

For me, the ending was one that I welcomed, it was the outcome that I hoped for, but I do wonder if that had been different if the wife had narrated the story, aiming it at J?

Clever, utterly compelling and beautifully structured. A book to discuss and one that I recommend. 

C. E. Riley is a writer and director of the literary festival, Primadonna, which is described as 'books,
with a little bit of rock'n'roll' – a festival that showcases established and emerging voices that aren't heard enough in the mainstream. 

She lives in London, and has previously published two works of non-fiction. 

Is This Love? is her debut novel.

Twitter @ceriley7

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