The Codes of Love by Hannah Persaud

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A raw and gritty look into the workings of a modern-day marriage, The Codes of Love is a gripping debut that combines soft, hazy images of the isolated countryside with the overwhelming intensity of love and lust. Hannah Persaud makes us question everything we think we understand about relationships and gets underneath the skin of just what it means to rely on someone. The novel is all-consuming and at times claustrophobic, bringing forth the complicated aspects of this seemingly ‘ideal’ open-marriage arrangement.

On the surface, The Codes of Love is a largely simple story about the breakdown of the open marriage between Ryan and Emily, and the events leading up to the eventual demise. Yet, this isn’t just another tale of heartbreak; Persaud plunges straight into the arrangement between the characters, and at first glance, it seems that this is the perfect set-up for the two. Ryan, while the most reluctant of the pair, is still seemingly embracing his slight ‘freedom’, yet it soon becomes clears his choice of partner (the erratic whirlwind that is Adeline) is far too intense for their delicate marital situation.

Emily too gets sucked into Adeline’s charms, initiating her own muddled affair with the character. Yet while this aspect of the plot could fall into the dangers of being far-fetched, it works wonderfully. The build-up to Emily’s relationship with Adeline is done so slowly, and is so charged with passion, that Persaud makes sure that there is no room for any other option than for the two to supposedly fall in love. As readers, we are made to question the fine line between love and sex; Emily, a seemingly confident and independent individual, turns into a meek and troubled character with the presence of Adeline. Her body trembles, and she’s taken back to those feelings she had with a past female lover, Charlotte, the details of which are expertly teased throughout the story.

In fact, it is this added element of exploring sexuality which makes the novel even more interesting, elevating it above a typical ‘love story’. Persaud’s characters are unsettled, yet incredibly comfortable in their heteronormative, typical lives. Emily especially has seemingly done all she can to suppress and her feelings towards women, and the intensity of her desire towards Ada, until the very end of the book.

This theme builds intentionally slowly, yet our attention is kept throughout. With every page another layer is peeled away (the sub-plot of Leo adds another dimension to Emily, and eventually Ada’s, muddled past), and as the characters reveal cracks in their personalities, their resentments towards one another, and continue to mould their rules to fit their individual situations.

One of the ways in which Persaud captivates the readers’ attention is the clever use of time- and place -jumping within the narrative. We don’t ever fully know when the ‘present’ is, as we flit between times when their open marriage is seemingly working, to moments when Adeline’s influence has overwhelmed the pair. As the novel progresses, the gap between the timelines becomes less and less, and it becomes harder to see a clearer way out of their muddled situation. The characters make bold and erratic decisions, and we question just how much of this is Adeline’s doing, or simply Ryan and Emily exercising their wish of escapism.

This idea of escapism is explored beautifully throughout the novel, with Persaud taking us from urban south London, fraught with traffic in every sense of the word, to the peaceful surroundings of the Welsh and Devon countryside. Both characters run away from their lives, the people they are responsible for, and – for a brief period at least – immerse themselves in an alternate reality. For them, the purchase of their homes represents so much more than a place to holiday. It gives them a taste of the life they could have lived with Adeline, and the reader sees that their worries are much more similar than they initially think.

Adeline swoops in on the couple’s lives with heavy impact, yet Persaud purposely doesn’t give her much character background. This means that she is easily mouldable in the two narratives, and adaptable to fit whatever story they want to tell themselves and each other. While she is chaotic in both instances, it is a different kind of chaos. The fact that so little regard is given to understanding Adeline also highlights the inherently selfish nature of Emily and Ryan. For them, Adeline functions merely as a pawn in their troubled marriage. However, the scenes when she shows some emotion and becomes seemingly more stressed/unhinged, are therefore more powerful, if unsettling. In these moments, the reader sees her now as an all-encompassing character rather than just a symbol.

It’s not just Adeline who has this faceless role in the novel – even the kids, Sam and Tom, seem largely unimportant in the couple’s existence. Sure, we get the odd snippet of family holidays, dramas, exams at school, but this mainly takes a backseat to the affairs that are taking place within the marriage, and their individual explorations with Adeline.

How the couple met themselves is also only briefly mentioned, leaving little for us to dissect and read into. But that’s not important in this novel – Persaud instead aims to highlight what is happening in the ‘moment’, and how the pair are navigating this new marriage. By the end of The Codes of Love, when the fragmented timelines finally meet in a climactic and charged conclusion – yet one that is also oddly calm and collected – the reader is left pondering how and why Ryan and Emily ended up like this.

The Codes of Love is published by Muswell Press and is available here.

Hannah Persaud

Hannah Persaud has written a number of prize-winning short stories. She is a winner of InkTears Short Story Contest and the Fresher Writing Prize amongst others. She writes short stories, poetry, and the occasional flash fiction. This is her first novel. She lives in Stroud with her family.

@HPersaud / www.hannahpersaud.com

Writer. First novel “The Codes of Love” being published by Muswell Press in print and digital edition and by Bolinda in audio on 5th March 2020. Represented by Laura Macdougall of United Agents. 

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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