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The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of Mary (2012)

by Colm Tóibín

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This audio book is read by Meryl Streep. It's a provocative imagining of Mary's reaction to her son's life and death. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
Despite being an atheist, I've always been interested in the Bible. Not in a spiritual sort of way, you understand, but as myth: I enjoy the stories of Jesus, and of Noah, Samson and Joseph and so on, in the same way I enjoy the Greek myths and legends of Heracles, Theseus, Jason, Odysseus and Achilles. Consequently, I am rather fond of literary attempts to provide a new perspective on the Biblical myths, whether secular, subversive or just plain different.

Late last year, I read a book by a New Zealand author named C. K. Stead which was the perfect expression of everything I look for in this sort of book. Entitled My Name Was Judas, it was a thoughtful and eloquent retelling of the story of Jesus, from the perspective of his best friend Judas Iscariot. I won't go into detail about any of its numerous qualities, as I discussed them in a dedicated review available elsewhere on this website, but it did encourage me to look for other books which might provide a similarly invigorating reappraisal of the Biblical myths. Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary was one title which keep popping up in my searches.

The Testament of Mary is a short novella (a shade over 100 pages) which retells the story of Jesus from the perspective of his mother Mary. This sounded intriguing to me, but unfortunately Tóibín did not deliver on the inherent promise of the concept. First of all, it's too short to do Mary's story justice and none of the ideas are developed to any great extent. Prospective readers will, understandably, be expecting to read about Mary interacting with her increasingly distant son who is getting himself into all sorts of trouble. Well, no. She meets her son only once during the course of the novella: it is a brief meeting, she says one or two things to him and he ignores her. There is no insight into their relationship simply because there is no relationship. To put it simply, The Testament of Mary lacks the mother-son dynamic which is no doubt the main appeal for those who first hear about this book.

Tóibín also doesn't seem to know why he's writing this or where he wants to take it. Early on, Mary is railing rather mean-spiritedly at the male-dominated society she inhabits, but this somewhat anachronistic proto-feminist perspective (this dutiful and pious mother wants to 'eradicate the stench of men', apparently) is dropped rather early on. There's also intermittent attempts to pour scorn on the fanatics and hangers-on who cluster round the increasingly popular Jesus, but it rarely amounts to more than Mary just wanting some annoying zealot to leave her alone. Finally, attempts to provide a secular account of the Jesus story and how certain events came to be wrongly seen as miracles (incidentally, one of the main strengths of Stead's My Name Was Judas) fall flat. Mary is not even present for most of the important points of the Biblical story, and she hears about most of her son's 'miraculous' deeds second- or third-hand from other characters. Consequently, she is in no position to comment on them. In this respect at least, something like 'The Testament of Jesus' Cup-Bearer' would have been a more useful book, for at least the cup-bearer would have been around when all the stuff was going on. And on the one occasion Mary is a party to events, in the resurrection of Lazarus, the story is told straight, with Jesus literally resurrecting the poor sod like some Nazarene necromancer. It's almost as if Tóibín didn't know how to explain the Lazarus story away, so just put it in there and hoped you wouldn't notice. Throughout the book, Mary tells us she does not believe Jesus was divine or performing miracles left, right and centre, yet she witnessed him raise a zombie from the grave? It seems strange, to say the least. Somewhat ironically, these parts with Lazarus are the best in the whole book. Tóibín's Lazarus is a fascinatingly enigmatic character who has glimpsed the other side and has reluctantly returned; I could not help but feel that a story from Lazarus' perspective would have been much more interesting than Mary's. In essence, The Testament of Mary does not satisfactorily answer any of the questions it asks, and a number of questions and topics you hope it would pose aren't even raised.

But it's a novella!" you may be thinking at this point. "Of course it can't go into as much depth as a novel can!" But let me tell you that I've read some really great novellas over the years and the best of them do manage to go into great depth about their themes without compromising brevity or clarity. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Orwell's Animal Farm and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men all spring to mind, and whilst it may be unfair to compare Tóibín to writers of such unimpeachable skill, those titles do demonstrate that a novella doesn't have to be a poor man's novel; it can have a quality and integrity all of its own. And if Mary's story could only be properly told in a novel, then The Testament of Mary should have been written to novel length. There's an old saying that if you're not going to do something right, you shouldn't do it at all.

I don't mean for all this to sound harsh; it's only because the concept showed such potential that I am so disappointed Tóibín could not realise it. It did have its good points; there are one or two neat little flickers of a mother's anguish at what is happening with her son. On page 74, Mary notes how Jesus, at his crucifixion, is now more defenceless than he was on the day she birthed him. On page 54, she talks eloquently about the growing distance between the two of them: how her son "seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as he learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep." But for the most part, the emotion rings hollow. Despite everything, you don't really get a sense that she has been profoundly affected by Jesus' trials. The book lacks the right tone: Mary's voice is dispassionate, detailing matter-of-factly each development in the story. Even at the crucifixion, Mary notes how she didn't try to aid Jesus - or even approach him - because she knew 'it would not have mattered' (pg. 77). At this point, she is primarily concerned with ensuring her own safety from the Romans. It just didn't strike me as the behaviour of a mother who is watching her son go through all the torturous horrors that crucifixion entails.

There is a promising little bit on page 94 where it is hinted Mary is more profoundly affected by what has happened - "I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that, or lessen what it did to me." - but for the most part we are presented with Mary's stoic exterior rather than the conflict going on inside her. Surely the point of a first-person testament is to set the record straight, to tell it as it is? Instead, Tóibín's Mary is a reluctant narrator unwilling to share her real story. Maybe it hurts too much to lay it bare, but it kind of defeats the whole point of Tóibín writing and others reading it in the first place. As I have said, it had its good points and, because it is so short, the reader's reaction does not go beyond disappointment at its unfulfilled potential. But if you want to see this story done right, go instead for C. K. Stead's My Name Was Judas." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
This author is definitely not for me! I didn't like Brooklyn much but this book is way different and I kept losing what I was reading. I give up. ( )
  PallaviSharma | May 9, 2016 |
I read this on Easter, an appropriate day for perhaps an annual reading, since it's only 81 pages. Mary, the mother of Jesus, old and wary, is living in the care of some of the gospel writers, who urge her to tell the crucifixion story the way they want to hear it, but Mary will tell only the truth. In her account the pieta never happened, and the resurrection was a common dream held by Mary and Mary Magdalene. The voice is sorrowful, lyrical, tired, forceful, resigned. ( )
  deckla | Apr 5, 2016 |
Looked forward to this telling of Jesus' story from Mary's point of view, and so disappointed.

Long ago, maybe in the 70s, there was a kind of cheesy made-for-TV movie, Jesus of Nazareth, in which Robert Powell played Jesus and Olivia Hussey played Mary. One scene was unforgettable, when Mary sees her son on the cross. That scene said far more to me about a mother's pain and the crimes committed in the name of the gods than this book.
  seschanfield | Mar 7, 2016 |
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Colm Tóibín's mothers don't always behave as they should; they are often unpredictable, occasionally downright troublesome, prone to gusts of passion or rage or – worse – unnatural indifference. Rarely are they uncomplicated figures of placid, nurturing devotion; but they do make for fantastically involving fiction. In his 2006 short-story collection, Mothers and Sons, Tóibín brought us relationships that were often characterised by the way they inverted traditional roles. An entrepreneurial widow plots to escape to the anonymity of the big city, clashing with her son's determination to hold fast to their small-town life; another man slinks away from a crowded pub rather than be spotted by the celebrated mother who has absented herself from his life; in "A Long Winter", a magnificent extended piece set in rural Spain, a young man is forced to keep house ineptly for his father after his alcoholic mother walks out into a snowstorm rather than be deprived of drink.....
added by marq | editThe Guardian, Alex Clark (Oct 26, 2012)
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For Loughlin Deegan and Denis Looby
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They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"Originally published in 2012 in Great Britain by Viking Penguin." T.p. verso
"Some of this novel was used as the basis for the play "Testament," performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 2011." T.p. verso
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Book description
In a voice that is both tender and filled with rage, The Testament of Mary tells the story of a cataclysmic event which led to an overpowering grief. For Mary, her son has been lost to the world, and now, living in exile and in fear, she tries to piece together the memories of the event that led to her son's brutal death. To her he was a vulnerable figure, surrounded by men who could not be trusted, living in a time of turmoil and change.

As her life and her suffering begin to acquire the resonance of myth. Mary struggles to break the silence surrounding what she knows to have happened. In her effort to tell the truth in all its gnarled complexity, she slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.
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A provocative imagining of the later years of the mother of Jesus finds her living a solitary existence in Ephesus years after her son's crucifixion and struggling with guilt, anger, and feelings that her son is not the son of God and that His sacrifice was not for a worthy cause.… (more)

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