Tag Archive: Toibin; Colm

Dec 13

Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Testament of Mary

For a tiny book, this packs a punch. Short listed for the Booker Prize this year, I think it truly deserved to be there. Literary fiction isn’t much my thing these days, but this crop of nominees had a couple that I wanted to look at, so I read this one earlier this week when my back was killing me from shifting all of the library’s Large Print collection in a single day.

This book is a first person account of Mary, mother of Jesus, from her perspective late in life. She escaped from Jerusalem after the crucifixion and was spirited away to Ephesus where two unnamed men visit her every day to gather stories about Jesus to put in the gospels that they are writing.

This is not your Mary, full of patience and grace. This is Mary with a long eye towards the past, Mary who is a little impatience with all this God talk, Mary who misses her son and doesn’t like the weirdos who hung around with him. This Mary is a lot more mother, and a lot less mother of God. And the perspective of seeing Mary as a person, rather than as a radiant, all-compassionate mother figure is really quite interesting.

Now, obviously this is not nonfiction masquerading as fiction. It doesn’t attempt to do this, and everyone knows that Mary’s true thoughts on the subject of the burgeoning Christian faith are ultimately unknowable, but I’m a sucker for a reinterpretation of mythological stories, and the Christian mythos is no exception.

I don’t quite know how to describe this book. I mean, it’s written testament style as a reflection on past events. And Mary is…if not exactly funny, at least relatable. She doesn’t understand or like the misfits that her son keeps bringing home, chalking that up to the fact that they’re all weirdos who don’t have the confidence to look a woman in the face and be a man about it. And the bulk of her story follows three events: Jesus initial departure, the wedding scene, and the trial and crucifixion. In this account, she claims to have fled Golgotha before Jesus had finally died and to have been on her way out of the country by the time the empty tomb was discovered.

Toibin is obviously playing with the idea that the truth of anything distant is truly unknowable, and that all we have are the possibly fallacious, possibly misinterpreted, possibly mistranslated, possibly not even real accounts to try to build reality. And that just doesn’t work because everybody has an agenda and an angle they’re after.

At 81 pages, this book is truly worth the not very long it takes to read, and it’s easy to see how Toibin has been a three-time Booker short list-er. How he has yet to murder anyone from being so close but not a winner three times is more of a mystery. Anywho, if you’re looking for something contemplative that will stick with you for a while, this will do it for you. After all, ’tis the season.

JMF Rating: 8/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF