Before he became a father of the Christian Church, Augustine of Hippo loved a woman whose name has been lost to history. This is her story. She met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen. She was the poor daughter of a mosaic-layer; he was a promising student and heir to a fortune. His brilliance and passion intoxicated her, but his social class would be forever beyond her reach. She became his concubine, and by the time he was forced to leave her, she was thirty years old and the mother of his son. And his Confessions show us that he never forgot her. She was the only woman he ever loved. In a society in which classes rarely mingle on equal terms, and an unwed mother can lose her son to the burgeoning career of her ambitious lover, this anonymous woman was a first-hand witness to Augustine’s anguished spiritual journey from secretive religious cultist to the celebrated Bishop of Hippo. Giving voice to one of history’s most mysterious women, The Confessions of X tells the story of Augustine of Hippo’s nameless lover, their relationship before his famous conversion, and her life after his rise to fame. A tale of womanhood, faith, and class at the end of antiquity, The Confessions of X is more than historical fiction . . . it is a timeless story of love and loss in the shadow of a theological giant.
Between the years 397 - 400 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo released his multi-volume memoir Confessions. Within the pages of the early passages, he makes mention of a woman who was quite important to him prior to his church life, but the woman remains unnamed except for when he calls her "Una" -- The One. In The Confessions of X, Suzanne Wolfe imagines who that woman might have been, what she might have been like, and what might have transpired to have this mystery female part ways with Augustine.
In this novel, the woman remains officially unnamed though she is given nicknames by some, such as her best friend Nebridius. Their first meeting was at the town creek when they were small children, so he gives her the nickname Naiad (Greek for "spirit of the river") while she calls him Nereus (jokingly meaning "wet one" but also name of a Greek god of the sea).
Augustine and his special lady meet when they are 17, both being friends of Nebridius. They have a whirlwind romance but their relationship faces a major roadblock. Augustine is from a privileged family and heir to a great fortune while X is the daughter of a humble mosaic artist. In fact, X's father has her living with his sister since he struggles with drinking and gambling addictions. Tough sell for a man in Augustine's position, but he feels true love for X so he presents her with the best situation he can offer her -- no official marriage, but instead a position as his concubine.
It had cost me nothing; it was to cost me all.
In that era, the role of concubine was a little different than what we imagine when that word comes up now; back then it was more like vowing yourself into a common-law marriage via commitment ceremony... spiritually powerful but not as legally binding. In fact, under the concubine arrangement, in the case of a break up, the man would automatically get full custody of any children he sired, while the woman would basically be out on her rear.
X bears Augustine a son and they have many content years together. Neighbors seem stunned at just how cozy & lovey-dovey the couple remains as the years continue to pass. But there is a restlessness to Augustine's spirit that X cannot seem to calm. X packs up their home and moves the family from Carthage, Africa to the bustling city of Rome, hoping Augustine's heels would cool once he got settled into a more academically satisfying community. Hard as she tried though, nothing seemed to answer his need quite enough. When she overhears one of his colleagues whispering that X may be playing a part in Augustine being held back professionally, she makes the choice to exit out of his life at the age of 30, returning to Carthage so that he might make a advantageous and official marriage with someone within his class. But as history buffs know, Augustine goes on to choose the church over another woman.
I'm new to the writing of author Suzanne Wolfe, though she's had a few books out prior to this one. This novel though... WOW. Her descriptions of this world are so palpable! This is one of those books you have to be willing to take slow because there is A LOT of detail to take in and while you might feel a little worn out in the process taking it all in, it's all worth it. There's one heck of a story here! I can't imagine processing the kind of painful decisions X was pushed to make multiple times over the course of her life. I just picture this woman with a shattered heart that never found a way to entirely heal but somehow she pushes through and carries on.
Although the roots may be in darkness the flower grows toward the light. Root and flower are one, not separate.
The story isn't all heartbreak though! There are some loving scenes between Augustine and X that are alternately beautifully deep and sometimes tragic but also sweet, adorable, even hilarious in parts. I had a good laugh over one scene where X is talking with her friend Neith, the mother of a large herd of children. X just has her one son. Neith hypothesizes that X's love of books is just a band-aid for her pain, an odd side effect from struggling to conceive again, shrugs it off with "you'll soon be cured." The reader is then given a glimpse into X's inner thoughts, the memory of how the birth of her son very nearly killed her, making her think that maybe she doesn't WANT to be cured of reading! X-D
This gorgeous bit of historical fiction gave me a glimpse into a time & place I've admittedly read very little about -- the Romans in Carthage, Africa. Weird how it's hard to think of Romans outside of Rome but this novel reminded me of the true scope of the Roman Empire. History aside, I also fell in love with all these unique characters -- not just Augustine and X but also all their friends, neighbors and colleague who had small but important influences on their day to day life decisions. These characters were wonderfully alive and I eagerly look forward to exploring more of Wolfe's work!
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.
A couple of new-to-me vocab words I took away from this novel:
Anchorite = a religious recluse
Suborn = to subhorn is to bribe someone to commit a crime
"The Latin word that gave us suborn in the early part of the 16th century is subornare, which translates literally as "to secretly furnish or equip."
~ from merriam-webster.com