The Confessions of Edward Day is Valerie Martin’s ninth novel, and it’s a triumph of her unique art. As usual, it’s easy on the ear—Martin writes with amplitude, precision, grace, and wit—but it’s hard on the characters. They do not spare one another, and their author doesn’t spare them. None of Martin’s books ends with kisses all around and happy feasts, and The Confessions of Edward Day is no exception. Reader, be warned: you won’t end up in Cinderella’s castle. But you’ll have a fine time not getting there.
Martin’s distinguished career began with the publication of Love, a collection of stories, in 1977, and continued with her first novel, Set in Motion, in 1978. These have been followed by two more story collections— The Consolation of Nature, in 1988, and The Unfinished Novel, in 2006—as well as a life of Saint Francis of Assisi and six more novels. Of the novels, the best known are Mary Reilly, a look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as seen through the eyes of Mary Reilly, Dr. Jekyll’s adoring quasi-literate housemaid (played in the 1996 film of that name by Julia Roberts), and Property, which won the United Kingdom’s Orange Prize in 2003.
This latter is an astonishing take on the gruesome and emotionally incestuous lives led during the antebellum years of the American South, not only by the plantation slaves but by the white wives of the plantation owners, who were also considered “property”—albeit of a slightly higher order, since they couldn’t be sold. Most of Martin’s novels have at least one character in them who is likable or charming or admirable in some way, but Martin does not flinch: slavery deforms everyone involved in it. Property is Gone with the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin rolled into one and turned upside down. Nobody comes out of it well, although of the two female leads—one black, one white—it can be said of them that they are brave and resourceful, and also long-suffering; they put up with a colossal amount of sadistic abuse and hypocrisy, not that they have a choice.
The Confessions of Edward Day takes place in a very different setting—the milieu of young East Coast actors in the 1970s. Any title beginning with The Confessions of… raises the specters of Western literature’s two most eminent confession-writers. The first is Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions—written in 397–398—is considered to be the original of the form. The second is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who cast a backward glance at his predecessor by stealing his title, while embarking upon his own supposedly no-holds-barred, bare-all, would-I-lie-to-you Confessions (completed in 1770 but published in 1782, after the author’s death, by which time no one could contradict his version of events).