Book review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

Sometimes a book creeps up on. You begin reading and you think it is one thing, and then quite suddenly you realise it is something quite different; something all together more complex and thought provoking.

This was exactly my experience with Jessie Burton’s The Confession, published September 2019, by Picador.

From the beginning this novel was absorbing and well plotted, and I was immediately entertained. But it wasn’t until the final third when the book ambushed me. The writing throughout is, as you would expect spectacular, but suddenly the book’s message crystallises, and this book moves to another level.

This is the story of two generations, told across two time periods; it is the story of a search for identify and roots.

Firstly, in the early 1980’s Elise Morceau, young, beautiful and but seemingly directionless, embarks upon a relationship with an older woman. Constance Holden, Connie, is a confident and successful writer. At the top of her game, Connie’s work is gaining international acclaim, and Hollywood beckons as her first novel is being made into a star studded film.

Following her lover to LA, Elise begins to question their relationship and importantly her own sense of identity. As events take a dramatic turn, Elsie’s life changes forever.

Thirty years later we met Rose, who has been brought up by her father; her mother having disappeared when she was just a baby. Finally her father begins to open up about her mother’s disappearance, telling Rose that Connie Holden was the last person to see her mother. Now in her thirties, Rose begins to question her own path through life and she has a renewed need to find out more about her past. Armed with her father’s fragmented memories she looks for a way to connect with Connie, who has cut herself off from the world.

It is clear that even in its own right the story is strong. The writing is sharp and insightful, there is just the right sense of urgency in relation to pace and tension. But it is the underlying questions and themes that book both embraces and raises that make this such an insightful and memorable read.

This a novel that questions our relationships and how they define us. It asks poignant and often difficult questions about the way we establish our own identity. Burton looks at the way we often rely on others to give us a sense of our own worth, and asks whether it is someone’s else’s responsibility to make us whole.

She examines relationships, highlighting both extreme highs and lows. She explores how her characters seem to cling to the familiar, and the need to be wanted even when things are falling apart. Each relationship within the novel is flawed, each is not an equal sum of it’s parts. We see the immediate and dramatic effect of cruelty and betrayal, but also the slow decline brought about by apathy and boredom.

There is a clear focus on the need to establish a sense of self. For Connie, this seems to be tied up with her writing, for Elise, ironically, she finds out more about her true values by taking on the role and persona of another.

Continuing the theme of self and identity, Burton tackles head on the theme of motherhood. Sometimes brutal in her honesty, she explores the idea that, on some level, a women’s identity is bound up in her sexuality and biology. She questions, for example, the assumption that all women have the capacity to be a ‘mother’. Or maybe that all women, should feel the social and personal pressure to mother.

It is often said of a woman that she is foolish to consider herself the mistress of her time. Her body had other plans. When it comes to children, people parrot, ‘there’s never a good time’ – but I would counter that with that with the truth that there can be a bad time, too. When it isn’t their own body and life – their own time – under discussion, people blithely generalize, even prioritize the myth of the perfect unborn over more complicated existences already here, now. It’s only those who have become mothers who might put their hand on your arm, and tell you, wait

The Confession- Jessie Burton – pg 438

Burton explores the idea of how effective can you be as a mother , shaping and nurturing the identify of another, if you don’t have a true sense of your own worth and identify. In fact how secure is any relationship where one individual is lost or unsure?

The messages and context of this book seemed to grow the more I read. I do believe that this is one of those books that will give up yet more secrets each time you read it. This one is a keeper.

Rachel x

Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Before I start , quick question would writing in loud, shouty capitals

“THIS BOOK IS AMAZING, I COMMAND YOU TO BUY IT!”,

 cut it as a book review?

No? Thought not. Well then we have a problem because I am actually a bit – well, very – scared to review this book. I enjoyed it so much that I am worried that I can’t do a good enough job in conveying how beautiful and complex it is. I just don’t know if I can do it justice, I feel I might some how break the spell it wove around me by trying to write about it. 

But,  on the other hand, I can’t ignore it. It is one of the most amazing books that I have read this year. So I can’t be a ‘proper’ book blogger if I don’t write about, so here goes. 

 

 The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is set in Victorian London. It is 1850 and the Great Exhibition is on the verge of opening. Iris and her twin Rose are working in a Doll Makers shop. Discontented with her lot Iris dreams of being an artist. A chance meeting leads her to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost. She becomes his model, his muse and a developing painter in her own right, changing her life completely. But in escaping her life in the doll shop Iris incurs the disapproval of her parents and her sister. Cut loose from her family ties Iris is drawn further into the artist’s world, becoming Louis lover and caught up in his desires for a a place in the Academy Exhibition. 

Silas Reed is watching Iris. Introduced to her by street urchin Albie, he is convinced that she is the girl he needs to make his life complete. A loner, working as a taxidermist, dreaming of creating his own exhibition, he is waiting to make Iris his own. 

From the beginning of the novel Macneal’s sense of place and time is impeccable and vivid. There is a vibrancy within the writing which speaks to the reader, drawing them into the streets of London. From the outset that tradition and mainstay of Victorian literature is present; the duality of the city. The ever present fact that grime and art, wealth and poverty exist together, and that neither is ever far from the other. Moreover one feeds and enables the other. For example Albie, brings his dead rotting animals to Silas; who in turn stuffs them and sells them on to Louis and his Brotherhood. Nothing in this city is what it seems, appearances are most definitely deceptive.

And once you have picked up on this motif of duality you find it expertly woven everywhere. It’s in the characters of Iris and her twin Rose. One outward looking, seeing beyond her own limitations and reaching for freedom; the other constrained by her physical scars and trapped in the doll shop, resentful of her sisters choices.

Albie, with his poverty but keen emotional intelligence is the nemesis of Silas. Silas, brooding, resentful and increasingly menacing. We seem him develop from a vaguely ridiculous man with harmless delusions of grandeur to a threatening presence. It is Albie, watchful and wise beyond his years who sees the danger.

But what of Louis, where does he fit into this web of duality? Louis and his brotherhood are devoted to capturing life in art, making a true and accurate presentation of what is before them. Like Silas’ taxidermy, their art is striving to preserve an image for posterity. Life in Victorian London is fragile, easily taken away. Be it a stuffed dog, an Academy painting or a doll modelled on a dead child, everyone is in a race to preserve precious life.

Everyone except Silas. Silas has slipped beyond presentation and duplication and into the sinister realms of possession. The possession of life and all that entails. In Silas we see the ultimate duality, just how easily love and affection can fester and tip into the dark realms of obsession and hate. Compare the twisted longing of Silas to the open enabling affection of Louis and we are right back in the arms of duality. Genuis stuff!

Genuis rides again by making the backdrop to this novel the Great Exhibition. Throughout the novel the motif of display is present. Louis and his Brethren dream of the Academy, Silas is looking to create a museum of curios, Iris wants to exhibit her work , the Doll shop and it’s wares; all build a picture of art imitating life but also they force us to question how real they actually are. London itself could be seen as one big exhibition, where nothing is quite as it seems.

For every major character in this novel is an outcast, an anomaly, working on the edges of society. Albie; an urchin, ducking and diving. Silas; social awkward, ridiculed and alone. Rose; disfigured by illness and Iris; born with physical imperfection. Louis and his artistic circle; all working outside the bounds of accepted norms and techniques. It is a cast of misfits. Or curiosities in an exhibition.

This plot is a living museum, where the reader can peek in and see how the characters make the best of the hand they are dealt. Do they turn their differences into strengths, striding forwards like Albie, Louis and Iris to make their mark on the world? Or do they let past misfortunes turn inwards and fester, leaving them bitter, constrained and resentful like Rose and Silas? How do they achieve freedom and how do they use the freedom they gain?

I adored this novel. I loved it’s characters, watching them grow either with confidence and bravado or quiet, creaking menace. I loved the setting, the creeping poverty in juxtaposition with bright lights of London. I loved the plot, infused with humour, pathos and terror. I loved it all.

Thank you Elizabeth Macneal. How long before I am allowed to reread?