Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary (review)

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-mary‘The boy became a man and left home and became a dying figure hanging on a cross.’ (location 952-58)
So a book about the mother of Jesus and how she doesn’t believe him to be the son of God? How could I possibly pass on that?
This book tells this well-known story of Jesus’ life from a new perspective, the point of view of his mother, which makes it so fresh and new – and I just loved it.
When we meet Mary, she’s living on her own, having lost both her husband and her son. She is regularly visited by a couple of Jesus’ disciple and otherwise just keeps to herself, staying out of trouble, and mostly lives in her memories.
Through her memories, we are shown Jesus’ life from his childhood to his death, the lovely times they had at the Sabbath when he was still and child – and the not so lovely time they had at the wedding at Kanaa for instance. We see Lazarus returning from his grave to lead a life that’s not so much a miracle as a zombie existence. We see Mary’s relatives shun her because they are afraid to be associated with her son through her. And we see Mary desperately trying to save her son, failing at it and then hoping desperately that he will be saved some other way. And of course, that hope is crushed and she even has to flee his crucifixion to save herself, leaving her son to die on his own.
I’ve read several reviews saying that Mary felt like a modern woman. I don’t know about that – it’s easy to say that since we haven’t always had the same view on children, parents and the relationships between them as we do now, that Mary’s love for her son isn’t right for her time. I don’t know if that’s true or not. For me, this is a story about mothers through the ages, about how a mother and child sometimes grow apart. The child makes some life choices you don’t agree with – but you always love them. The mother may also do things she’s not proud of but it’s not for lack of love and as mothers, we never feel we are as good as we can be – or as good as we should be. And so it is with Mary. She loves that boy.
So while I’m not sure whether Mary is too modern, there’s still a lot of modern themes. While we are used to hearing about this charismatic man who influenced his peers and a lot of other people around him to a better way of life, it’s definitely not that story we see here. This feels more like a story of peer pressure and what happens when you’re running with the wrong crowd. It also deals with retelling – and remaking – history. Even though Tóibín doesn’t deal with how the Bible was collected through a selection and voting process, he shows the disciples as misfits who exploits Jesus and uses him to create an idea, a faith – and how Mary tries to preserve her memories of what actually happened the day her son was killed and not give in to the disciples who keeps coming back and tries to persuade her that her memories are flawed.
And that of course is true. Memories are always flawed. But I think a mother remembers how her son died. And remembers too what she did that day.
I really really liked this short novella and I was so impressed with the amount of raw emotion and thought-provoking content, Tóibín was able to put into just 114 pages. I’m pretty sure that this novella has a lot of potential to rub some people the wrong way but I strongly recommend this one to just about anyone since it’s just a wonderful novella about so many aspects of the human existence, showcased through the story of one mother and her love of her only child.

First line: They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world.

  • Title: The Testament of Mary
  • Author: Colm Tóibín
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: 114 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

I read this for Rick’s Novellas in November challenge.

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5 thoughts on “Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary (review)

  1. I was immediately drawn to this book when I saw it but some negative reviews influenced me not to buy it. I’m so glad you wrote about it and that you liked it. I really should try for myself now.

  2. I’ve had this on my pile for some time and I don’t know why I haven’t got round to it yet, unless it’s because of it’s subject matter. There have been a number of books recently rewriting the gospel story and all of them have had very strong agendas that have put me off. But Toibin is normally excellent so maybe I should put my qualms to one side.

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