Burton is an accessible, appealing stylist and writes with sincere gusto. She is particularly good at evoking a sense of place, whether a contemporary London house or a 1980s Hollywood poolside. A sharp intelligence beneath the romantic sensibility makes the less convincing story elements almost forgivable. What is less easy to ignore is the unconvincing and emblematic characterisation. Together with the plot, this makes The Confession feel more like stylishly written commercial fiction than a novel of any literary heft. Of course, there is nothing wrong with commercial fiction, people devour it. Burton, I suspect, will need to weather roaring book sales for some time to come.
The author has a talent for rendering lifelike characters on the page and creates a gripping double plot. But by signposting ‘responsibility’ and shoehorning opinions into the narrative, The Confession can feel a little heavy-handed. Burton should trust her many admirers to be able to read between the lines of her — often beautiful — prose.
I loved Burton's debut, The Miniaturist, but this is even better! Rose's mother disappeared when she was a baby, and the last person to see her was Constance, a reclusive novelist based in Hampstead, London. When Rose tracks her down, will she get the answers she needs? I was completely engrossed.
While men and fathers are opaque, their personalities and actions filtered through the women around them, the characters of Connie and Rose particularly are so complex and nuanced as to be completely believable. Connie’s energy is so absorbing that her decades of self-imposed seclusion and lack of creativity feel unconvincing, necessary for plot rather than character: she was so real I wanted to read her books. For a relatively slight plot, The Confession is long, the storytelling occasionally repetitive. Its heart and ambition are unwavering though, the characters perfect in their imperfection, in the way they – like any of us – play out old mistakes on new people.
The Confession perhaps lacks the dramatic thrust of The Muse and The Miniaturist; it is quite a slow build to the revelation promised by the title. But Burton is a writer fully in control of her craft as she employs the fundamental co-ordinates of a fairytale. Overall it stands as another understated triumph for the patient typist.
This is a novel that feels intimate, delving into the mechanics of relationships that women have both with others and with themselves. It’s also a riveting story that will keep you guessing until the end.
Despite this, what stands out is Burton’s interrogative commentary on the propensity to label women’s writing as “autofiction” — lived experience, rather than imaginative leap — and the dangers inherent to such categorisation. It has good things to say, too, about the importance of welcoming failure, and having compassion for oneself in doing so: “It is a privilege,” writes Constance, “to get something catastrophically wrong, and be given another chance as if nothing really happened.” But while there are glimmers of the immersive, Gothic atmosphere that won Burton such acclaim for her previous novels, in examining how and why stories are told, The Confession is too focused on theory, and doesn’t deliver a strong enough tale in its own right.
Successful writer Constance ‘Connie’ Holden and Elise Morceau meet by chance on Hampstead Heath in 1980. Elise follows Connie to the glamourous world of LA, but it’s not long before she makes a decision that changes everything, and a compelling mystery begins to unfold. An absorbing tale of self-discovery.
The bestselling author of The Miniaturist and The Muse returns. Rootless Rose Simmons is desperate for information about her mother, Elise, who disappeared when Rose was a baby. Her search takes her to the reclusive novelist Constance Holden, who knew Elise better than anyone else. But is Rose ready for the truth? Jessie Burton always writes perceptively about female identity and creativity, but here, she also explores motherhood in all its guises and nuances to stunning effect
Like The Muse, which came next and paired the Spanish civil war with 60s London, this latest novel has a dual time frame, alternating between the increasingly stormy drama of Elise and Connie’s love affair, and a second strand, anchored in London in 2017, where narrator Rose Simmons is on a quest to find the mother who vanished before her first birthday. Or so she thinks because, as it turns out, Rose, who’s reached her mid-30s without finding her way in life, is really searching for her own true self. If that sounds a bit pat, then it’s a testament to Burton’s dexterity as a creator of atmosphere and character that The Confession doesn’t read that way – or at least, not in the main. There’s a precarious tranquillity, to the early chapters in particular, that is enrapturing... While Burton resists easy conclusions, calling out the perverse comfort that’s to be had from abandonment and the myriad other ways in which a lover’s hurt can justify shabby behaviour, she does have a weakness for treacly dialogue. “Oh, Rose,” Connie exhales towards the novel’s end, “I always wondered if this day might come.” To Burton’s credit, one can almost see Constance Holden curling her lip as the words are put into her mouth. It’s one of relatively few flaws in an absorbing, intelligent piece of storytelling that succeeds in sustaining its mystery to the end.
The Confession might be quite devastating if it weren’t for its fatal flaw: the main characters are as flimsy and bloodless as extras in a movie. Connie should be a magnetic beauty for us to fall in love with; Elise an enigmatic muse; Rose a version of us, the reader (assuming that most of Burton’s readers are moody, middle-class millennials; or their mothers). But while the bit-part players such as Rose’s sweet father and Connie’s gutsy agent are people you want to know more of, it’s as if Burton is too entranced with the theoretical idea of her protagonists to actually work on making them real.
The sense of place is nicely rendered, whether windy Hampstead Heath or balmy California, but there’s something missing at the heart of this almost impressive third novel that leaves you wanting more.