Unveiling by Suzanne Wolfe
Review by Katy Carl
Paraclete Press, 2018
$16.99; 182 pp.
Reader, I hope you’ll allow the following intrusion of personal essay into what is meant to be a book review. It may be the quickest way to explain how heartily I wish now that I had known years ago about Suzanne Wolfe’s recently re-released novel Unveiling:
For many years, some words from Forster’s A Room with a View —“One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness, but for life”—kept their place on a quote board plastered up with scotch tape over my workspace. As an undergraduate in St. Louis, and then as an entry-level editor in Washington, DC, I was working on a novel whose main action took place in Italy and whose aesthetic banner was the pursuit, not of niceness, but of life. The action of that work has since become the background narrative of a second, I hope more mature, attempt at engaging similar themes. But at the time, I was devouring every piece of literary prose I could find written on or set in Italy; I was hoping that without the resources to travel there again, following a brief tour in 2001, I could still bring to life on the page the aesthetic and emotional valences of a transformational encounter with culture and art.
Unveiling heralds similar ambitions in a different key. It originally came out in 2004, around the same time as I was working through my first draft. Wolfe’s first novel, Unveiling won an Award of Merit for Fiction from Christianity Today in 2005 and was re-released last year by Paraclete Press. Unveiling covers a transformational encounter with art that takes place in, and is catalyzed in part by the cultural richness of, the city of Rome. In the process, the novel profoundly honors a value that Forster identified as central to effective fictions and to honest lives: It records and acknowledges a full range of phenomena, pain and trauma as well as beauty and transcendence, without sentimentality (“niceness”) but instead with careful fidelity to lived experience.
This fidelity represents, with neither endorsement nor flinching, the wounds of human nature. Without giving spoilers, it may be helpful for some readers to know that the trauma from which protagonist Rachel is healing involves a rape and subsequent forced abortion, surrounded by abusive family dynamics in which those who should have protected Rachel betray her instead. In the conversation that is the feature of this issue, Wolfe identifies the late conversation between Rachel and her mother in the “central panel” section of the novel, containing certain revelations about Rachel’s trauma, as having been the most difficult scene in the novel to write. It is a testament to Wolfe’s skill that the difficulty does not show on the surface of the prose. (As Wallace Stegner puts it in Crossing to Safety, “hard writing makes easy reading.”) Easy, but not facile: the scene lands with an emotional force in sharp and effective contrast to Wolfe’s gentle, reverent handling of it.
As a whole, the narrative is profoundly and unapologetically on the side of healing and wholeness, in contrast to trends in contemporary fiction and culture that celebrate “messiness” and brokenness for their own sakes. The scenes that encompass Rachel’s growth in freedom from her past and progress toward the light are gorgeously concrete, blessedly free of unnecessary abstraction, and wholly earned.
It might be appropriate to think of Unveiling as in some ways a conversion story, although the suggestion of faith elements in this conversion toward the end of the novel is just that, a suggestion. It is especially appropriate in this sense: that no one issue in Rachel’s life—neither her sexuality, nor her professional work, nor her emotions, nor her approach to worship—is treated as a complete and unproblematic metonym for Rachel’s transformation. Even the central metaphor identified by the title, the “unveiling” of an artwork’s history as allegory for the unveiling of personal history that allows for healing—retains its centrality, yet doesn’t overwhelm the thread of narrative.
In the midst of all this, Rachel appears as a richly drawn and complex character, for whom the rising tide of grace in her life lifts all the smaller boats. In popular terms, her transformation doesn’t make her someone different than she was before: instead, it makes her more herself. Conversion is defined not even so much by the content of character, certainly not by the layers left upon its surface by time, but by the direction in which the person faces. Rachel’s healing frees her to face in what direction she chooses, and her choice is subtle but unmistakable: Rachel’s final decisions in the novel, marked by total professional and personal integrity, fly in the face of moral compromise, an unapologetic victory for goodness without a trace of self-righteousness.