Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 23, 2013

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of MaryI was completely riveted by this short novella, and read it in a single sitting.   But it’s come in for some heavy-duty criticism, and not just from the usual suspects i.e. very religious people, and people not interested in religion at all. Kevin from Canada was puzzled by its nomination for the Booker, Joe Pinkser at The Atlantic found it a slog.  But Mary Gordon at the NY Times, however, thought it a beautiful and daring work.

And so do I.

This uncompromising reimagining of the story of Mary the Mother of God reminded me of David Malouf’s reimagining of Homer’s Iliad in his novella Ransom. To quote from my own review:

What is most striking about the difference [between Homer’s Iliad and Malouf’s novel] is the way Malouf humanises the characters.  Homer delivers heroic ‘types’, and the reader is not really privy to their innermost thoughts and fears. But Malouf takes us into their hearts and minds – he shows, for instance, how the burdens of kingship weigh heavily on Priam, and how his subjects – especially his surviving children – can’t reconcile the poignancy of his needs as  a grieving father with his role as a dignified king.  For them, it matters intensely that he maintains a regal position; his subjects look to him as King as part of their identity.

Tóibín explores the same territory.  From its inception, the story of Christianity needed Mary to be a meek, virtuous, selfless and heroic symbol as part of its identify, and it still does.  Tóibín challenges this reductive view of the woman at the centre of the story.  Catholics and Protestants have been in dispute over the Virgin Birth for centuries, but (to the best of my knowledge) until Tóibín no one has ever characterised Mary as a cantankerous old woman who goes to her grave denying her son’s godhead.  Her testimony reveals her scepticism about the miracles; her doubts that raising the dead was of any benefit to the wraithlike Lazarus; her contempt for the followers who mill around Jesus like besotted fans of celebrity; and her firm conviction that the excruciating death of her beloved son was not worth the sacrifice.

Hassled over a lifetime to contribute to gospels that she knows to be fudging the truth, Mary has remained silent, but as she nears the end of her life, she is ready to give her testimony.  It is powerful, confronting, and you don’t need to be a grieving mother yourself to feel that it’s much more truthful than anything you might read about Mary in the gospels.  Her initial response to the idea that her son’s death has ensured eternal life for everyone in the world is disdainful, but her outrage grows until she can’t contain it:

‘He was the Son of god,’ the man said, ‘and he was sent by his father to redeem the world.’

‘By his death, he gave us life,’ the other said. ‘By his death, he redeemed the world.’

I turned towards them then and whatever it was in the expression on my face, the rage against them, the grief, the fear, they both looked up me alarmed and one of them began to move towards me to stop me saying what it was I now wanted to say.  I edged back from them and stood in the corner.  I whispered it at first and then I said it louder, and as he moved away from me almost cowered in the corner I whispered it again, slowly, carefully, giving it all my breath, all my life, the little that is left in me.

‘I was there,’ I said.  ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say it was not worth it.  It was not worth it.  (p.102)

The writing, as you’d expect, is superb.  There is a remarkable scene in which Mary gets into a real rage over a chair:

There is one chair in this room in which no one has ever sat.  Perhaps in the past the chair was in daily use somewhere, but it came through this door during a time when I needed desperately to remember some years when I knew love.  It was to be left unused.  It belongs to memory, it belongs to a man who will not return, whose body is dust but who once held sway in the world.  He will not come back.  I keep the chair in the room because he will not come back.  I do not need to keep food for him, or water, or a place in my bed, or whatever news I could gather that might interest him.  I keep the chair empty.  It is not much to do, and sometimes I look at it as I pass and that is as much as I can do, maybe it is enough, and maybe there will come a time when I will not need to have such a reminder of him so close by.  Maybe the memory of him as I enter my last days will retreat into my heart more profoundly and I will not need any help from any object in the room.

I knew, in their roughness, their way of moving in as though they were making a raid on space, that one of them would select this chair, would make it seem casual and thus all the more difficult to oppose.  But I was waiting. (p. 19-20)

(Others have said she’s more like Medea than Mary, but I think that’s ludicrous. Medea was vengeful, and murderous. Tóibín’s Mary is nothing like that. )

This little novella doesn’t just reinvent Mary: it also throws out a challenge.  Jesus, in this testament, couldn’t even convert his own mother.  He’s a failure.

It is that aspect of this novella that makes me feel uneasy.  It is one thing for Leslie Cannold to imagine a feisty sister for Jesus in the novel The Book of Rachael – it is another to satirise, even ever-so-gently, the foundations of a world religion.

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: The Testament of Mary
Publisher: Picador Australia 2012
ISBN: 9781742611044
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $19.99

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Fishpond: The Testament of Mary


Responses

  1. While we came to different conclusions, I can’t disagree with any of your impressions about this novella — it is a very accurate assessment, well argued.

    • That’s the thing that makes it so hard for authors, isn’t it? The same book can generate such different responses, all equally valid. I really enjoyed reading your review and the ensuing conversation, which so cogently shows that readers whose opinion I really value had a reaction quite different to mine.
      That’s what I love about book-blogging – the interactive aspect of it is so much more engaging than the old ‘letters-to-the-editor’ model in print journals.

  2. I enjoyed The Testament of Mary very much as well. I don’t know if you or any of your readers saw Toibin interviewed on Compass. I thought the program was well done and that hearing Toibin read from the novella really brought it to life. Did you know that this is his third Man Booker shortlisting? I wonder if he’s becoming reconciled to always being a bridesmaid.

    • I missed that, Dorothy, but I heard him ‘in conversation’ at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I’ve been a fan of his for years. I love what Kim at Reading Matters wrote about him: she said she’d happily read his shopping list!

  3. Lisa, great review! The book has been on my list since I saw him speak so articulately (and humorously) about it in Edinburgh, and read a beautiful section.

    • Thanks Angela:)
      What did he say about it, humorously, that is?

  4. I didn’t really know anything about this book so thanks for this great review. I like Toibin very much so I expect given that and your review, I will like this book too.

    • Thanks, Stefanie, I think you’ll find it interesting for the same reasons I do:)


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