Review by Anna Hollingsworth
Capturing an era with impeccable accuracy is a challenge that anyone writing about the past must face; there will always be that critic who enjoys combing through a novel for the most minor historical slips. Jessie Burton, however, is clearly not afraid of tackling the historical. Her debut, The Miniaturist, dived into the puritan society of 17th-century Amsterdam, where a mystery miniaturist carves out a newly-wed girl’s life in a smaller scale. In The Muse, Burton moves between 60s London and 30s Spain, telling a tale of the hidden creativity of young writers and painters. It’s hardly headline news, then, that in her third adult novel, The Confession, Burton continues her time-hopping exercise once again in the world of art. What is unexpected is how the best-selling author fails to realise the story’s full potential.
In 2017, Rose Simmons finds herself drifting through her 30s: her life revolves around working in a café, watching her boyfriend Joe struggle with making his dream burrito van reality, and going on coffee dates with her best friend and Instagram influencer. Then, all of a sudden, she is landed with a sense of purpose when her father hands her two books. Rose was abandoned by her mother as a baby and her father has remained silent about the details, but the author of the novels, Constance — Connie — Holden, is the last person to have seen her mother before she disappeared. Convinced that the author holds a key to her personal story, Rose takes on a fake identity and becomes Connie’s personal assistant. As the co-working relationship of the two women transforms into friendship, Rose is forced to ask questions not only about her mother but also about her own identity and direction in life.
Rose’s story is told in parallel with that of Elise Morceau who, in the early 80s, is also going through life without direction until a chance encounter with Connie — then a successful author whose novel is being turned into a Hollywood film —leads to romance. Elise follows Connie to LA where parties with glitterati and casual visits from the biggest star in the film industry soon become their new everyday life. Yet, while Connie thrives, Elise finds herself increasingly at loss and desperately out of place.
The Confession is a novel about female autonomy: its protagonists have to make their own lives and accept that no one will come to rescue them. Connie is already there in her formidable independence, both as the bestselling author of the 80s and the mystery writer who disappeared from the literary scene in 2017. Elise is forced into painful decisions, tearing herself away from what is familiar in the unfamiliar LA, while Rose, unintentionally, sets on a journey of self-discovery, during which she has to let go of her life-long obsession with her mother. Burton does a solid job in producing what one might dub an empowering novel, as clichéd as that may sound. Although set in a magical world of writers, actors and cultural agents, The Confession does not shy away from the very real choices that the characters are forced to make in less-than-magical situations, building a contrast between the often gritty reality we inhabit and the stories that we want to tell ourselves.
Unfortunately, with three women all addressing the idea of female autonomy, Burton falls into the trap of copying too much of the same throughout the novel. It’s deliberate to an extent, and I’m sure that reading about similar women in two different eras would be a very clever literary device if it was done right. In The Confession, however, Elise’s and Rose’s stories are cut from moulds that are simply identical, and the women are not allowed to develop into fully-fledged individuals: I wish Burton had seen that you can be a young woman adrift and question yourself in more ways than one.
To her credit, Burton manages to keep her chosen decades distinct, but in such a heavily character-led story the pressure is off from the historical description anyway; the jumpsuits and occasional pay phone call suffice to make the 80s obvious but not in an ostentatiously shoulder-padded way.
Beyond that, The Confession fails to flow in terms of style. A lot of the time it feels as if Burton was under pressure to choose unique ways of describing people and places, but instead of a distinctive voice, there is an uncomfortable sense of forcedness. The director of the film adaptation of Connie’s book is described as “small and intense, like a vibrating crystal at the table. [–] He did not look like the kind of man who would wear a baseball cap and sit in a director’s chair. He looked more like a philosopher in a fitness instructor’s body.” To me, a vibrating crystal, philosopher and a fitness instructor are more at home in a game of “what’s the connection”.
There is a clumsiness to the dialogue, too, which is everyday to the point of banal. It’s not “everyday” in the penetrating Sally Rooney way that highlights the casual failures of communication and the awkwardness of people; it’s “everyday” in the sense of following a script and becoming painfully clichéd. The Confession would have been much more powerful had the characters spoken with their own voices.
Although The Confession fails to reach its full potential, it shouldn’t be dismissed as a book without anything to give. The tension holds throughout, and the short chapters will keep the reader turning the pages. I did want to find out what happened to the characters; I just don’t think their fates will stick with me like those in better novels do.
Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.
Jessie Burton, The Confession (Picador, 2019) ISBN 9781509886142, hardback, 464 pages.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)