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.