The Confession

Jessie Burton

Picador, £16.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

WRAPPED up in the tale of a mother and daughter who never knew each other but are inexorably drawn towards the same woman, the core of Jessie Burton’s third adult novel is a declaration of a woman’s right to take charge of her own destiny. Some women find it harder than others, of course.

Rose Simmons, now in her mid-thirties, feels like she has drifted through life rather than taking it by the scruff of the neck. Working in dead-end jobs and stuck in a stale relationship, she feels a disappointment to her father, who raised Rose after her mother walked out when she was still a baby. Her mother’s absence has, understandably, left a huge void in her life, along with many unanswered questions.

But now there’s a chance that some of those questions might be answered. Her father has given her a couple of old paperbacks by an author named Constance Holden, belatedly telling Rose that her mother, Elise Morceau, and the writer were very close in the early 1980s, with Constance being the last person to have seen her before she disappeared.

Now in her seventies, the reclusive Constance no longer writes, doesn’t give interviews and is unlikely to want to rake over the past.

But we have an advantage over Rose. We can flash back to 1980 to see exactly what transpires when Elise is swept off her feet by Connie. Some 15 years older than Elise, she is talented, charismatic, self-possessed and successful, and her smitten young girlfriend accompanies her to Los Angeles, where a film is being made of her first novel. Overwhelmed by LA, where nothing happens without an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda, things start to go awry for Elise when she realises that, having never achieved anything notable herself, she’s seen as nothing more than an appendage to Connie.

As their stories progress in parallel, the same issues come up for troubled mother and abandoned daughter. In 2017, Rose adopts a new identity, Laura Brown, to infiltrate Connie’s home in a bid to find out more about her mother, and soon finds she likes life as Laura better. In 1982, Elise offers to model nude for Connie’s friend Shara, relieved to do something that requires nothing more of her than to be still: “To be present but also absent as her real self vanished into the canvas.” The pressure on both to get pregnant and go through the process of forgetting who one was before having a child (“you never remember yourself truly”) blurs into the central theme of vanishing or negating oneself.

To get Rose into a position where she can get to know Connie and win her trust, The Confession relies on a plausibility, stretching contrivance which would be tricky for a lesser book to come back from. But Burton’s three central characters – chief among them Connie, whose insistence on her autonomy has come at a cost to herself and others – are so complex and compelling that their spell is never broken for long.