I have been keen to read this for a while, and was excited to finally embark upon it this month. It is a tricky one to review because the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns: the fewer spoilers the better, so I will keep this brief.
The novel is an exploration of relationships and marriage, and takes the form of chapters headed with “Rules For An Open Marriage”. Initially I anticipated a study of a mutually agreed open marriage and how it worked for one couple (no doubt with difficulties along the way), but the story that Persaud presents is far more complex and nuanced than this. I actually found it quite shocking to discover that only Emily had wanted an open marriage, and that Ryan’s agreement was not only reluctant but very nearly coerced. At first, this gave me much more sympathy for Ryan than for his wife, but gradually Emily’s reasons, both explicit and implied, became clearer to me, and I think by the end of the novel she was the character I felt I most understood.
Although I occasionally struggled with the fact that the characters are really quite unpleasant to each other, that reflects more on my naive desire to have a ‘good guy’ to root for than on the book itself. The lack of emotional warmth is deliberate, I think, showing how relationships are in many ways contracts, with some of the terms and conditions clearly understood and others inscrutable and changing over time. This is an intellectually rigorous novel, reminding me of Sally Rooney and Tessa Hadley in its almost forensic dissection of the ways we interact with those we claim to love. At one point, a character on the periphery of the story comments explicitly on that ‘fine line’ between love and hate; indeed, the antagonistic way in which couples often interact is uncomfortably highlighted in this novel. The edge of dislike in much of the dialogue cuts close to the bone, and makes for an unsettling read. Fans of cosy romantic tales will find no refuge here.
Persaud excels at setting, and the Welsh cottage which features heavily in the story is practically a character in its own right. I could clearly picture its sloping croft, the open fire, the newly made staircase, and the nearby mountain. The physical distance between the cottage and London provides an opportunity for the characters to almost become different people in different locations, which, without saying more, works very well for this story. She also writes well about physical injury (as a clumsy person myself, I get mildly annoyed when fictional characters seem to sail through life without so much as a stubbed toe) and at various points this awareness of physical frailty creates a thrilling sense of danger. Recklessness is an important theme here, and the isolation of the cottage is effective in upping the stakes.
The story is far from straightforward, and Persaud does a very good job of balancing its many strands and its non-linear chronology. She also weaves in elements that are surprising and tantalising – a hint of other genres such as horror and crime that deepen the flavour of the book and show the writer’s range. At times I wanted to follow these threads further, although I can see why they are left as suggestions here. I think there is a lot more to come from this author, and I am excited to read more of her work in the future.
The Codes of Love by Hannah Persaud is out now, published by Muswell Press.