Is this Love? By C. E. Riley: Who’s telling the truth here?

Cover image for Is This Love? by C. E. RileyI couldn’t resist C. E. Riley’s Is This Love? after reading the blurb: the story of a marriage breakdown is told by one of the parties whose gender is never revealed through a narrative addressed to their wife interspersed with diary entries plus transcripts of her testimony to her solicitor. Something of a daring structure for a debut but it worked for me.

I loved you even though you felt like you were in control right now, because I knew that deep down you didn’t know what you were doing and I would be here, like I always had been, to take back the reins when you were tired

Out of the blue, J’s wife tells them she wants a divorce one morning just before leaving for work, refusing to give a reason or to discuss what has led up to this announcement. J and their wife have been together for six years and married for over two. They seemed the perfect couple, falling passionately in love and quickly moving in together. They bought a flat in Dalston, J’s wife providing the deposit while J gave up their job to spend over a year renovating their new home. J wanted both marriage and children, making their feelings clear from the start, feelings their wife appeared to share. Rough patches were navigated, or so J thought, but the occasional episode left an uneasiness that, in retrospect, might have been read as a warning sign. Thrown into confusion by their wife’s announcement, J is at first desolate, then furious after reading her diary and testimony of abuse and coercion, eventually coming to an acceptance that the person they once loved no longer loves them and wants nothing to do with them.

I need to get out of this relationship. I am being made to feel smaller and smaller, like I just don’t matter at all

This is such a clever, immersive piece of writing, discomfiting at times.  J’s wife portrays J as an abusive partner, controlling their finances, belittling her in front of friends and given to violent temper tantrums which have occasionally ended in assault to the extent that she’s frightened to be with J. J’s rebuttal, when they finally write it, details episodes of control and manipulation by their wife, episodes mentioned early on in their narrative, painting themselves as the wronged party. Of course, both views are partial. By the end of the novel, we seem to be pointed in one party’s direction but there are hints that there are more than a few shades of grey in this portrait of a marriage and its fallout rather than J’s stark black and white. Withholding the gender of the narrator is an interesting idea – the blurb asks if readers would change their minds if they knew what J’s gender was. It’s a tricky one to answer but I suppose I’d say that control and coercion are, sadly, equal opportunity behaviours, as is not telling the truth. I found this novel quite gripping, it had me constantly assessing and reassessing what I was reading, not least when I sat down to write this review, and I’m still not sure what I think.

Serpent’s Tail: London 9781800810280 224 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

8 thoughts on “Is this Love? By C. E. Riley: Who’s telling the truth here?”

  1. A very interesting premise, not knowing the gender of the narrator. I can see it might make for a very thought provoking read and possibly a good one for book group discussions.

  2. Madame Bibi Lophile

    Oh dear, I keep losing my comments on WordPress, I don’t know what’s going on! In case the comment I posted turns up later I’ll just summarise it as – this sounds a very impressive debut, I’ll look out for it 😀

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