At the beginning of Ulrica Hume’s metaphysical and spiritual novel An Uncertain Age, Justine meets Miles Peabody on the Eurostar en route from London to Paris. While they appear to meet by chance, it’s more likely destiny is involved. An aspiring artist, Justine is looking for certainty and stability after losing her job and her fiancé. A retired librarian, Miles is focused on twilight of life issues. They are drawn together despite their differences of age and lifestyle and end up site seeing together while Miles considers making the traditional Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He wants Justine to accompany him; before she can decide what to do, Miles disappears on a routine errand in Chartres.
Miles is fascinated to the point of obsession with the tragic love story of the 12th century French philosopher Peter Abelard and his student Héloïse d’Argenteuil. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for Justine to converse with him about anything without hearing what Abelard and Héloïse thought or did under similar circumstances. Abelard founded a monastery called the Oratory of the Paraclete. Some years after the powers that be forced Abelard and Héloïse into separate lives (both in religious orders) after their illicit affair was discovered, she ended up at the Paraclete as its abbess. In their honor, Miles’ house in London is named The Paraclete.
The relationship between Justine and Miles takes on some of the overtones of Abelard and Héloïse’s relationship. Inasmuch as destiny seldom presents its happenings with a definitive guidebook, it’s impossible to say whether Miles and Justine are drawn together and then separated from each other because Miles wants to mimic Abelard’s life as part of his own search for meaning or because their spiritual quests cannot move forward on the same path.
While much of Abelard’s work was considered heresy by the church, he did convince the Pope to accept his doctrine of limbo. The irony here is that Miles’ Abelard-like disappearance casts Justine into an ongoing temporal limbo. First, the nature and direction of their relationship could not be pinned down to Justine’s satisfaction. When Miles disappears, the French police won’t allow Justine to leave town until they are satisfied she is innocent of potential crimes that might explain his absence. When Miles isn’t found and she is free to leave Chartres, Justine is uncertain what to do next because other than working on her art, her specific plans aren’t well defined.
Wherever Justine is, she knows she will be waiting for Miles to return, perhaps as Héloïse longed for Abelard. Drawn to spiritual ideas, she seeks out a safe haven where she can ponder religious writings, work on her art and share her days with others of like mind. Those she ultimately meets on are missing something and are on their own quests based on the tenets of their diverse faiths.
The strengths of An Uncertain Age include the many layers of meaning flowing through the steps Justine, Miles and the other rather eccentric characters take while seamlessly sharing prospective routes to fulfillment that are traditionally at odds with each other. Hume’s novel is well plotted, well crafted and well researched. Some readers may be turned away at Hume’s characters’ heavy reliance on quoting and pondering scholars and religious leaders. To some extent, the philosophy delays the story.
At the same time, the philosophy drives the story. An Uncertain Age has the depth and power to inspire readers to ponder their own choices while waiting for the moment when each of Hume’s characters moves forward in faith or certainty instead of doing what Abelard and Héloïse would do. Hume’s prose makes this journey a rewarding trip.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”