Book Review: The Confessions of X

What can I say in praise of The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe that has not already been said? Evocative. Poignant. Bittersweet. Beautifully wrought like a fine mosaic. True-to-life. When I finished it, I could only sit, tears welling up and trickling down my face. To do anything else would have been to deny it the reflection it deserves.

The Confessions of X is a fictionalized memoir of the only woman Augustine of Hippo loved. He refers to her in his Confessions but never names her. When we finish her memoir, we still do not know her name, just her nickname, Naiad—water nymph—given to her by her childhood friend, Nebridius. In that regard, she stands for all the nameless women throughout history whose lives were intertwined with the lives of famous, powerful men. The last haunting words of her memoir could be her epitaph as well as that of all women like her.

She begins her story by recounting her childhood as the daughter of a poor mosaic-layer, who traveled around North Africa creating mosaics for the aristocracy and the church. She met Augustine in her teens when he was a struggling but brilliant student, the son of an upper-class family, a man above her station in life. Nevertheless, he asked her to be his concubine, and she consented. In their society, concubinage signified a monogamous relationship in which the status of one of the partners, usually the woman, was inferior to the other’s. It did not mean she was a woman of loose morals. But both knew the day would come when Augustine would have to choose between his career and ambitions and the one he loved who was an impediment to his advancement.

The story is beautifully wrought. The attention to historical detail immerses the reader in the time, place, and milieu of fourth- to fifth-century North Africa and Italy. The unfolding of her story is measured and unhurried as if Wolfe were carefully and lovingly laying a mosaic in words. The imagery is lyrical, salient details evoking emotion and mood. Just one sample: “As I look back, it seems as if each day was haloed by a light more golden than the sun, the heat of it the love that wrapped us round and illumined everything we touched.” It is not a novel to rush through but to savor and linger over.

Much more could be said about The Confessions of X. My parting word is that you do not delay in reading it and that you allow it to be a balm for the places of your soul rubbed raw by life.