October Review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton made her name with the historical novel The Miniaturist, which has sold over a million copies, a tale of obsession set in 17th-century Amsterdam. Her next novel, The Muse, spanned the Spanish Civil War and 1960s London. In The Confession, Burton again uses a dual time frame, following 20 year old Elise Morceau in 1980 and 35 year old Rose Simmons in 2017, both of whom are somewhat adrift in their own lives.

One winter’s afternoon, Elise Morceau is stood up by a man on Hampstead Heath but instead catches the eye of Constance (“Connie”) Holden. The two go to dinner another evening and Elise wakes up semi-clothed in Connie’s bed the next day. Elise is a waitress/usher/life model but Connie cancels her day’s work as a waitress by calling in sick for her. Elise reflects: “The paranoia of her hangover almost fed this quasi-wish to be absolved of any self-dominion, a little girl in the bosom of this powerful, talented person who didn’t let stupid things like dehydration prevent her ability to impersonate someone else and get Elise off work, to keep her warm in the house on a cold November morning, to run her a bath, to give her a fresh, clean bed.”

The couple move to Los Angeles where Connie’s novel Wax Heart is being made into a movie. Burton has fun in this section of the book, conjuring up a Jackie Collins-esque world of glamourous pool parties and powder-pink pantsuits. The writer has also said that she asked herself “what if a very English, Muriel Spark-esque character found herself in the surreality of Beverly Hills? Would she sink or swim in one of those Hockney swimming pools?” Elise yearns for agency in California, as she goggles at the ribald chat of Connie’s friends, not least the movie star Barbara who complains “It’s impossible to find everything in one man. I never can. I want one guy’s dick and another one’s mind, and I can never find those two things in the same damn place.”

Back in 2017, Rose is similarly dissatisfied. When her father asks her if she is happy, she is unsettled: “I looked at him in alarm. No, was the word I wanted to say. And hearing that word in my head, I felt that it was not the answer a woman of my age and good health should be giving. In the beat of my blood, in the swallow of a glass of water, in the glance of a stranger, I could see happiness. I have known happiness – but I feel as if I can taste other people’s happiness much more strongly than I can my own.” Her father also reveals that Connie had a relationship with her mother and Rose manages to score a job as Connie’s PA as she attempts to find out what happened.

It soon becomes clear that Elise Morceau, Connie’s former lover, is Rose’s mother but this doesn’t explain what happened to her. Burton has said she wanted to write a novel about “authentic feminine self-possession” and The Confession, as well as portraying women aiming for fulfilment through work, contains an important examination of childlessness as a choice. She also explores the tension between women who do and don’t have children and the mutual envy that can exist but doesn’t have to, and which can turn into mutual support.

October Review: The Confession by Jessie Burton
— Alex Peake-Tomkinson
6th November 2019