My rating: 4 stars
A story about motherhood and the distress that it may cause, The Confession by Jessie Burton promises to solve a mystery – what happened to Rose’s mother? But that truly isn’t the focus of this novel, which is set in two different time periods. Readers are introduced to Rose as she tries to understand herself and figure out what she aspires to do in life. For that reason, the characters are the main allure of this book, which is neither as enthralling nor bewitching as The Miniaturist and The Muse. Although it is a competent work of fiction, it lacks the magnetism of Burton’s previous novels.
On a winter afternoon in 1980, 23-year-old Elise Morceau went to Hampstead Heath in London to meet a man on the advice of her landlord. He didn’t appear, though. Instead, she ended up crossing paths with Constance Holden, whom she later discovered was a writer. Soon after they met, Elise moved in with Connie. She was deeply infatuated and treated her almost with reverence. Two years later, they both moved to Los Angeles, as one of Connie’s books was to be adapted to film. While in LA, Connie became colder and more distant.
In 2017, 34-year-old Rose recalls in the first person what it was like growing up without knowing where her mother was. Elise disappeared without a trace before she was one year old, leaving her with her father. As a little child, Rose used to always tell her friends that her mother was travelling. At 14, she started telling them that she had died. In her twenties, as some of her friends had really experienced losing their parents, saying the truth felt like the only humane option.
Growing-up, Rose’s father didn’t tell her much about her mother. It is only when her boyfriend, Joe, tells him that they are thinking about having a baby that he decides to disclose the scant information he has: the last person to see her before she disappeared was Constance Holden. Thus, Rose decides to go look for Constance. The way in which she does that requires a slight suspension of disbelief, but it ends up having consequences later on.
Despite struggling to connect with the characters at first, they become more fleshed out and interesting as the story progresses and we learn more about their inner struggles. Rose seems to want something more from her life, but she isn’t sure about what that is or how to achieve it. She is unsure about whether she truly wishes to be a mother or not. For most of the novel, she feels lost. Connie is a much more complex character than she seems at first. There is something about her past actions that she regrets, which is easily conveyed thanks to the story consisting of two timelines. Her not particularly healthy relationship with Elise left scars. While Elise could be obsessive, Connie was condescending and occasionally cruel. Her conversations with Rose become progressively more captivating and engrossing.
Although Jessie Burton gave more importance to the characters than to having a significant revelatory moment, there is still a good creation of tension at certain occasions. The conflicts between the characters also help to make the plot more gripping.
Various forms of art, including cinema and literature, are mentioned throughout the novel. Authors using fiction, or not, to come to terms with their past is a particularly relevant theme. However, the main focus of this book is undoubtedly motherhood. That is the topic that is not only at the centre of the plot, but that also connects most all of the secondary characters. One of Rose’s friends is an Instagrammer. There’s a reflection on how she uses her family to earn a living, particularly how she is monetising her daughter’s life without her consent. Although this is an interesting topic, it sadly feels like it was just thrown into the story to make it more current. More successful is the examination of society’s relation to the struggles of motherhood.
“Everybody wanted a fecund woman, but Heaven forfend actually helping her out with the day-to-day hell of it.”
While reading The Confession, I couldn’t help to wish for something more. A more mysterious ambience perhaps. That wouldn’t necessarily suit the story as it is, to be honest, but I was expecting to feel the same level of tension and excitement that I did while reading her previous novels. And that was not the case.