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IN 326, Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, had a vision telling her to go to Judea and find the True Cross. Davis Bunn depicts her landing in Caesarea, where she faces an army sent to kill her, through a journey marked by miraculous escapes from a stalking assassin, to her arrival at Jerusalem, where the True Cross cures the leper who touches it.
She spreads the news of Constantine’s Edict restoring Christians to their rights, and comforts those who have denied their faith, as many of us might, to save their families from torture and death. On the way, she finds help and support — Antonius, the young officer who wants to die; Cratus, the rough legionary sergeant; and wise Bishop Marcarius.
They are people with inner torments. Helena is consumed with bitterness against the husband who has just divorced her. Antonius is prostrated by the death of his wife and newborn child. The journey is also a spiritual one in which they discover forgiveness and a renewed sense of purpose. “Helena sat apart and argued with herself. Personal forgiveness meant accepting that she was flawed. Imperfect. Destined to miss the mark, time and again. She doubted whether she was able to actually, honestly, take that step.”
The author takes huge liberties with the facts in the service of a greater verity. According to Eusebius, Helena was 76 at the time she set out, and travelled in some state. She had also been divorced for decades. The Edict of Milan was passed in 312, and Christians were safe to practise their faith thereafter. It is best not to read this as real historical fiction, but relax and regard it as a means by which the author tells us some important truths, something that he succeeds in doing superlatively well.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.