St. Augustine of Hippo knew firsthand the agony of a broken heart. His account of sending away his faithful concubine sears the pages of his famous autobiography, the Confessions. He writes that
the woman with whom I had been cohabiting was ripped from my side, being regarded as an obstacle to my marriage. So deeply was she engrafted into my heart that it was left torn and wounded and trailing blood. . . The wound inflicted on me by the earlier separation did not heal either. After the fever and the immediate acute pain had dulled, it putrefied, and the pain became a cold despair.
This woman, Augustine’s beloved common-law wife, remains a tragic and enigmatic figure in the life of the great saint. He says little more about her and never gives us her name. As such, who this mysterious person was, and what she was like, may never be known for certain.
Thankfully, we have Suzanne M. Wolfe’s gorgeously-crafted and heartrending novel, The Confessions of X, which gives us a beautiful portrait of the woman who loved Augustine and gave birth to his only child.
Narrated first-person by this nameless woman, the novel begins with her childhood as the daughter of an itinerant mosaic artist. In her teens, she meets and falls in love with the young Augustine, becoming his concubine—a Roman legal status lower than marriage, but without much of the pejorative meaning we might attach to it in modern English. Together, she and Augustine raise their son Adeodatus, living in Carthage and then in Rome as Augustine seeks the fame and success of a public speaking career. But in Rome, Augustine faces a terrible choice: to remain in obscurity with the woman he loves, or to marry well for respectability and career advancement in Roman high society. We already know what he chooses, but we also know that God had his own plans for Augustine’s future.
The author shows a gift for historical fiction, and situates the novel in the vivid setting of fourth century Carthage and Rome. It is a world bustling with human activity, from the markets and ports to the cities and farms of antiquity. We see pagans and Christians living alongside one another. We observe a cosmopolitan Rome already in decline from the days of Emperor Claudius, a Rome that—at the end of the novel—will be sacked by barbarian hordes. Along the way, Wolfe’s fascinating depictions of ancient midwifery, mosaic art, food, and household economics add a depth and richness to an already-compelling story.
One of the novel’s greatest achievements lies in its amazing portrait of the young Augustine: brilliant, handsome, kind, ambitious, brooding. Prevented by his citizen status and his ambitions from marrying the woman he loves, he offers himself to her in common-law marriage. He teaches her to read, and loves her faithfully, taking tender care of her and their son. Among their circle of friends, the nameless narrator tells us, Augustine “was the sun around which we lesser planets danced, the great light of his intelligence, his wit, his humor, and his unfailing generosity, the radiance he shed effortlessly.”
But Wolfe also captures the deep unhappiness that simmers in Augustine. Enamored of the beauties and pleasures of earthly life, Augustine grapples with the problem of evil in the world, and with the wickedness within himself. His brilliance and ambition, too, leave him dissatisfied with his life as a teacher of recalcitrant students. And beneath all of this burns his ravenous desire for a Truth he cannot find either in created things or in the philosophical systems of men. The protagonist says it well when she tells Augustine, “You have wanted many things. . . And always when you have them it is not enough.” Augustine’s dissolute pagan father puts it better: “God’s hook is in his heart.”
But the novel’s real story is that of the unnamed woman who loved Augustine enough to let him go. And this sacrificial love, this unsung role of women in history permeates Wolfe’s beautiful novel. The author dwells on the incredible strength of women, living the hard lot assigned them in antiquity. Together, they face the dangers of birth, the hard facts of their social and legal vulnerability, the brutality of sinful men. As Augustine’s mother, Monica, tells the protagonist, “It falls on us to bear the sorrows of this world.” In this way, the nameless protagonist might represent all the anonymous women whose lives, sacrifices, and loves have shaped history only to be forgotten by it. It is this role that falls to her in the life of Augustine. As the practical Monica also tells her, “Men need women to push them out into the world.”
Although critics should beware pointing out the speck in our sister’s eye, I would venture that the novel has only two very minor flaws. First, the death of the protagonist’s aunt, coming too soon after another heartbreaking death scene, lacks the impact it might have otherwise had, and felt more like an attempt to wrap up a loose end of the story. Second, Wolfe’s protagonist, grown old and on her final pilgrimage to see Augustine one last time, sometimes reaches for profundity of insight but lands in obscurity of speech, as in this cryptic instance: “Thus the desires of our hearts knot and twist until we cannot discern the one from the other, neither seek to know, and so we weave the tapestry of our lives and wonder at the pictures we make.”
The Confessions of X has some heartbreaking moments in it, particularly a death in childbirth; likewise, its depictions of concubinage and sexuality (although in Wolfe’s delicate and beautiful prose) make it a novel for more mature readers. Book clubs may also appreciate the discussion questions included at the end.
Finally, Suzanne M. Wolfe’s accomplished, transcendent novel leaves us with a profound meditation on love and the Christian life, namely, ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est: where charity and love are, there God is. Real human love is, for Wolfe, an efficacious sign of the presence of Love Himself. The protagonist describes it thus: “I have heard Christians speak of grace as if it were something without substance, something which falls on them from the heavens like light or air. Grace, for me, is flesh and blood, bones and sinew, someone whom my mouth can name….”
But Wolfe also astutely reminds us that love is inseparable from loss. Augustine learns, and perhaps the protagonist is on her way to discovering, that loving God requires the loss of everything. As their son Adeodatus, speaking of Augustine, says to his mother, “He had to lose the thing he loved the most to find what he had been seeking all his life. Do you understand?”
Let us hope that one day we will.
The Confessions of X
by Suzanne M. Wolfe
Thomas Nelson, 2016
Paperback, 304 pages