Jessie Burton is famous for her million-copy bestselling debut novel The Miniaturist, which she followed with The Muse. Now she’s written her third, The Confession. Like The Muse, it is a double narrative, moving between the early 1980s and 2017 (a departure from the historical settings of her previous books).
In 1980, 20-year-old Elise meets Connie — ‘a vixen, upright on her legs’ — on Hampstead Heath. Elise soon forms an intense relationship with this older woman, a successful writer, but when they go to Los Angeles for the filming of Connie’s novel, cracks begin to show.
In 2017 we are with Elise’s daughter, Rose, who’s spent her life inventing stories about her mother to try to fill her absence, unexplained since she left her as a baby. Rose is 34 and adrift. She works in a café, while her boyfriend Joe fails to make a go of his burrito van venture. She watches her friends have babies and puzzles about how these ‘mythical women, wax-winged… soaring up towards the sun’ had got pregnant and then ‘used the old feathers on their wings for nests’.
She isn’t sure whether she wants to become a mother herself, especially if Joe is the father: ‘I was convinced that there were many other selves belonging to me that were locked inside and would be forever locked if I stayed on this path — this steady path, my hand in his.’ So Rose swerves off, quits the café and wangles a job as an assistant to Connie — now writing again after decades of silence — to try to discover more about her mother. Rose adopts the name Laura Brown and invents a new life for herself: ‘For 34 years, I had offered the world one version of myself. Within minutes of Connie’s company, I’d cast it off.’
Burton informs us that Connie’s new book, The Mercurial, is ‘about responsibility’. Taking the hint, we see that in The Confession the author interrogates responsibility’s different resonances: notably pitting a woman’s duty to care for herself against her obligation to care for her child; also exploring responsibility towards friends (to whom the book is dedicated) and the impact of our behaviour on them.
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.