‘We need stories like The Confession . . .’ Lucy Scholes on the portrayal of motherhood in literature

The Confession is Jessie Burton's powerful new novel of secrets, motherhood and friendship – a must-read for fans of The Miniaturist and The Muse. Here, journalist Lucy Scholes reflects on its complex portrayal of motherhood as a choice, and how, conversely, the decision not to become a mother is often depicted as a loss of experience as opposed to a meaningful experience in itself.

So often, in literature and in society, a woman's decision to eschew motherhood is defined as the lack or absence of an experience, as opposed to a fulfilling experience in its own right, observes journalist Lucy Scholes. But in Jessie Burton's deeply moving third novel, The Confession, Lucy finds a sympathetic and compassionate portrait of complex, content women who both choose and choose not to become mothers.

There has long been controversy around how women's stories have been treated in literature and the wider media, something which Jessie wanted to address in her new novel. As Lucy urges, ‘we need stories like The Confession'. Here's why.

“I knew a while ago that I wanted to write a novel about the physical, psychological and spiritual autonomy of women,” explains Jessie Burton by means of an introduction to her new novel, The Confession, the action of which is split between America in the early 1980s – stretching from the glamorous Hollywood Hills and idyllic Santa Monica beaches to grotty Brooklyn walk-ups – and present-day London. In revolving around two central mysteries – a daughter searching for her long-lost mother, and a once-famous novelist who inexplicably withdrew from public life – it both develops threads apparent in Burton's earlier works, while also shifting into profound new territory.

Burton has always written about fully realised, often headstrong female characters. The heroine of her bestselling debut, the late 17th-century-Amsterdam-set The Miniaturist, was a determined eighteen-year-old who's married off to a wealthy man twice her age, but it was less concerned with the dynamics between husband and wife than those concerning Nella and the other two women she suddenly finds herself sharing a home with: her husband's unmarried sister, Marin; and the family's maidservant, Cordelia. Then, in Burton's second novel, The Muse, again it was the relationships between women characters that took centre stage: in Spain during the Civil War, that between a 19-year-old aspiring painter, Olive Schloss, and Teresa, the friend who encourages her; and in 1960s London, the young Trinidadian-born Odelle Bastien and the older Marjorie Quick, who employs Odelle at her St James' art gallery. The three women at the heart of The Confession – Rose, Elsie and Connie – are equally fascinating. What their exact relationships with one another are, I won't give away, but suffice to say, their fates are inextricably intertwined. I'm inclined to describe the novel as a love story, but not in the traditional sense of the term. Although romantic and sexual relationships play an important part in the narrative, by far the most compelling love story at stake in the text is that between a mother and a daughter, not to mention the significance awarded to female friendships.

“I wanted my writing to dignify a woman's body and mind, treating it with as much respect as literature had always treated a man's journey through his own life,” Burton explained. Thus it's no surprise that motherhood – and by which I mean both the decision to have a child, and the decision not to – looms large in The Confession, as it does in the lives of most women at some point or other in their lives. In her recent novel Motherhood, the Canadian novelist Sheila Heti offered us a rarely articulated take on the decision to not have children, one that considered how to shape something commonly regarded as a privation or a deficiency into something that's recognised as a meaningful experience in its own right. “I don't want ‘not a mother' to be part of who I am – for my identity to be the negative of someone else's positive identity,” Heti writes. “How can I express the absence of experience, without making central the lack? Can I say what such a life is an experience of not in relation to motherhood? Can I say what it positively is?” The Confession wrestles with precisely this, and in embracing both characters who do decide to become mothers, and more radically, those who actively decide not to, it's a deeply compassionate book. When, for example, an older woman tells a younger one, “If you have a child, you will lose something. If you don't have a child, you will also lose something”, I heard echoes of Heti's conclusion that “the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special to me as the having. Both feel like a kind of miracle. Both seem like a great feat. To go along with what nature demands and to resist it – both are really beautiful – impressive and difficult in their own ways. To battle nature and submit to nature, both feel very worthy. They both seem entirely valuable.”

What's all the more welcome though is the fact that Burton doesn't simply have her characters engage with these issues theoretically: she makes abortion an integral part of the novel, refusing to shy away from the fact that the decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is something that many women make, and do so – far more often than most abortion storylines would have us believe – peacefully and with relief. In a world where books like Lisa Taddeo's bestselling Three Women offers us tales of trauma and lack of female agency trussed up as supposed “vital truths about women and desire”, we need stories like The Confession and characters like Burton's to offer us different models of how to exist as women in the world: as individuals in charge of our own destinies, our own bodies, and our own sense of achievement and fulfillment. As one young female character tells another, referring to the aforementioned female novelist in the story who wrote two brilliant books and one polemical feminist essay before suddenly disappearing: “She needed to write more. We needed her!”

In this episode of Book Break, Emma has even more reasons why you should immerse yourself in a Jessie Burton novel:

The Confession

by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s spellbinding new novel is a powerful and moving story of secrets and storytelling, motherhood and friendship, stretching from the dark glamour of 1980s LA to the chilly beauty of a wintry Hampstead Heath.