Jessie Burton is one of the finest storytellers of the modern era, she weaves a stunning, intricate web around different eras, different locations, or as in the case of The Confession, a dual time period and narrative, in which the reader becomes ensnared. Elise Morceau comes to the attention of novelist, Constance Holden, an elegant woman, some sixteen years her senior. Constance, with her air of self-assurance, wraps Elise up in a blanket of protectiveness and carries her with her as she follows the publicity trail of her book and its forthcoming film. Elise, motherless and rudderless, leaves her world behind to unquestioningly follow Constance in 1980s England.
Jessie Burton captures love and challenges us to consider our definition of love in both its deeply passionate, ephemeral form and it’s more familiar, stable and permanent form. Running parallel to Elise and Constance’s story, 37 years later is Rose Simmons, daughter of Elise, who is by now long gone. Growing up without a mother figure, much as Elise did, leaves Rose with a sense of displacement. Her sense of identity is compromised without a mother figure and her life has been shaped, defined even, by the absence of a mother figure. Then she finds Constance, now in her eighties, just as her mother did and she walks away from her life, just as her mother before her did.
Both female characters are well crafted, each shaped by her society and its values. Elise follows Constance in her chase for the dream, in a 1980s world where success was gratifying and attractive, where society was sexually charged and yet sexuality was censored. Rose in 2017 is stifled by a society drowning in money worries and increasing pressure to start a family. Sexuality is no longer an issue, but it comes at a time when those affected by those historical sexuality constraints are no longer in a position to feel relieved by this acceptance, their hey-day long past.
Both narratives see a female character searching for herself and as cliché as that may sound, the female in each narrative really is lost. She is lost amidst her obligations to others, she lost herself when she blindly loved another and gave no thought to herself and what she wanted and needed from life.
Jessie Burton has tapped into something which we lie to ourselves about so often, we enter into a situation where love is fiery and passionate and all-encompassing. She forces us to acknowledge how we turn the other way “when the love you’ve had for someone… leaks out of you. Like you’re slowly being drip-dried, and you can’t tell whether it’s right or wrong, whether it’s something you want or not. Whether you really want to break the contract, to say it’s not enough.”
Few of us are brave enough to listen to the truth about our own situations because those situations define our identity and without those situations, who are we? Across 454 pages, Jessie Burton shows us what happens when we get up and leave, and why sometimes, we need to. This is one of the finest pieces of writing to be published this year, it is under-celebrated and absolutely stunning in how swiftly she reels the reader in to a web that ensnares every single one of us.
(c) Dymphna Nugent
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