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Suzanne M. Wolfe’s “The Confessions of X” imagines the story of Saint Augustine’s concubine.  Suzanne Wolfe’s Facebook page | Courtesy
Suzanne M. Wolfe’s “The Con­fes­sions of X” imagines the story of Saint Augustine’s con­cubine.
Suzanne Wolfe’s Facebook page | Courtesy

A sput­tering flame casts shadows over the scholar’s face as he pores over the Scrip­tures, his bent body forming the perfect image of a stu­dious dis­ciple. It’s late, and the words blur on the page.

Saint Augustine snuffs out the candle and falls into his concubine’s arms.

In “The Con­fes­sions of X,” Suzanne M. Wolfe reimagines Augustine’s secret love life, fol­lowing the for­mation of the influ­ential theologian’s life and thought through the eyes of his mys­te­rious lover. But this novel is no expose. Wolfe, the co-founder of “Image,” a lit­erary journal devoted to religion’s rela­tionship with the arts, creates a vision of a vir­tuous woman whose life embodied the doc­trines of love, faith, and sac­rifice that inspired Augustine’s “Con­fes­sions.”

When Wolfe first read “Con­fes­sions,” she was struck by a glimpse into Augustine’s private life with a woman he refers to only as “Una,” or “the one.” After devoting his life to the­ology, the budding scholar reluc­tantly broke off this rela­tionship in order to further his career. Augustine never remarried, and he remem­bered their rela­tionship years later:

“This blow crushed my heart to bleeding because I loved her dearly.”

Intrigued by this doomed love affair, Wolfe soon learned that Augustine’s devotion to his con­cubine was no scandal. In fact, such “common-law mar­riages” were normal in a time when mar­riage between social classes was dis­couraged. From this story of star-crossed lovers, “The Con­fes­sions of X” was born.

Wolfe calls this anonymous woman “X,” the daughter of a mosaic artist and a pow­erful artisan of images in her own right. X tells her story with warmth and wisdom: her childhood with her vagrant father taught her to see life as the “art of broken things.” Her whirlwind courtship with Augustine, though it could never end in mar­riage, infused her life with love. And her life with him, though it ended in lone­liness, pro­duced her greatest work of art: her son Adeo­datus.

X tells Augustine “I think best in pic­tures,” and the novel’s lumi­nescent prose brings ancient Carthage to life in vibrant color. But Wolfe’s nar­rator is more than a roving pair of eyes watching her lover’s growth as orator, teacher, and the­ologian; the pic­tures she paints with her words lead readers — and Augustine himself — to pro­found insights.

The young philosopher’s debate over good and evil is uprooted when Wolfe paints God’s will as a flower. Rooted in darkness, it grows toward the light.

And when X sees beauty as “the yeast in the bread” of life, the Manichean debate between reality and the spirit goes up in smoke.

Though X’s sto­ry­telling is visionary, her life is a tes­timony to some­thing both below and beyond abstract pic­tures of love. The force of the novel stems from X’s fem­inine voice; for the mother of Augustine’s son, love must be incar­na­tional, rooted in the physical bonds that tie man to wife and mother to son.

Wolfe explores the question of women’s roles without molding her nar­rator to the well-inten­tioned but narrow stereotype of the “strong female char­acter.” Wolfe’s heroine is neither a cru­sading fem­inist nor a stand-in for an ambi­tious male hero.

Instead, X is por­trayed as a woman of her time, respecting her husband and con­forming to social norms regarding mar­riage between classes. But Wolfe also paints a Christian idea of mar­riage in the ill-fated but loyal rela­tionship between con­cubine and future church father.

Other female rela­tion­ships in the novel rein­force this incar­na­tional view of love. In “Con­fes­sions,” Augustine credits his Christian con­version to his mother, Monica. Wolfe’s Monica is a firm but devoted mother who accepts the vul­nerable X into her family in an act of love that sows the seed of faith for her son.

Though her rela­tionship with Augustine was con­tro­versial, her jus­ti­fi­cation for her love and inevitable loss is convincing.Throughout the novel, X uses metaphors of birth to illus­trate a woman’s calling to nurture men and push them into the world. The strength of all women — not only ill-fated con­cu­bines— lies in their sac­rifice as they let their loved ones go.

In “The Con­fes­sions of X,” readers will dis­cover their debt to women like X, lovers and mothers who sup­ported and inspired great men like Saint Augustine by serving as images of sac­ri­ficial love.