A Book I’m Not Sure What to Make of: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

Published last year to critical acclaim (and just longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize), Colm Tóibín‘s The Testament of Mary is a short novel (only eighty-one pages) that upends our (or at least, my) cultural conception of Mary.

Image courtesy of Seksuwat / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Seksuwat / Freedigitalphotos.net

In  Mr. Tóibín’s vision, the mother of Jesus does not believe that her son is divine, tries to save him from a path that will lead to execution, thinks his followers are a mob of lost men, and flees for her life before her son’s death on the Cross. She thinks of John and Paul (not named; I’m inferring—please correct me if I’m in error) as supercilious keepers, rather than trusted supporters. In her old age, Mary judges herself harshly, and her opinion of the nascent Christian movement is hardly charitable.

This novel isn’t plot driven, and I didn’t expect to like it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, to tell the truth. But what I did appreciate was the intimacy and immediacy of Mary’s voice. Mr. Tóibín makes her come alive (with unexpected thoughts and feelings, to be sure) dissolving the distance that I feel when reading about her or seeing a painting of her.

Oddly, this portrayal of Mary reminded me of Olivia Hussey’s performance in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (a family tradition at Christmas and Easter when I was growing up). Unlike this older, wearier Mary, Ms. Hussey’s Mary is convinced of her son’s divinity and supportive of his ministry. Like Mr. Tóibín’s Mary, however, she is infused with quiet strength and dignity.

Have you read The Testament of Mary? What did you think? If you haven’t read it, do you plan to?

19 thoughts on “A Book I’m Not Sure What to Make of: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

  1. I’m glad to see your review, as I just recently decided to read through at least a part of the Booker Prize long list. I saw The Testament of Mary and was wondering about it. I’m curious to hear more about your reservations?

  2. I suppose that for such an ambitious re-imagining, the novel/novella doesn’t cover as much ground as it could have. I gather that Mr. Tóibín doesn’t consider himself a storyteller, preferring to delve into the intricacies of character, and that preference is at work here, but the outlines of a narrative are so close that I wanted to reach out and grab them. I liked the non-linear structure of the book, though, and the characterization is excellent.

  3. Interesting…have not heard of this book, Carolyn. One wonders, especially since it is so short and evinces mere “outlines of narration,” what Mr. Toibin’s purpose or aim is in the writing of it….and does he achieve it, based on the reader’s experience? As a practicing Catholic with a deep devotion to Mary, I appreciate the desire to examine the intensely human and emotional experience of her life and circumstances. (A dear friend and I have a fond memory of laughing till we cried imagining Mary at the well with the other ladies in the village comparing sandals.) One wonders, however, at the value of completely upending the figure of Mary to this extent, such that there is not even a shade of recognizable character, but merely a bitter, negative, hopeless crone figure. I have no problem featuring Mary as fully human — she was — but I do have a problem, given what is known via Scripture, with wholly discounting her virtues and making her so much less. Clearly, the perspective suggests a complete lack of faith and belief and again, one then wonders why the desperate need to recreate the figure of Mary simply to degrade her role in Christian tradition and belief? Does that make sense? I read a novelization of the life of Mary Magdalene that took the same kind of liberties with filling in the gaps — necessary when there is little to go on — but didn’t diverge so far from the figure that she was unrecognizable — or unlikeable. I suppose I prefer this approach if I am going to invest my time with an author. Thanks for the review, Carolyn, and for bringing something new to my attention! 🙂

    • I wouldn’t say that I found Mary, in this text, unlikeable; she loves her son fiercely, but doesn’t understand his transformation as an adult (which she perceives as unreal). I think, if I were a believer, the novel’s premise would be rather shocking, and regardless, it’s certainly provocative. I wonder if Mr. Tóibín considers the Bible as a work of literature, its characters available for reshaping (as in, say, Jean Rhys’s characterization of Bronte’s Bertha Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea) and recontextualization. Overall, I don’t think the purpose of the novel is to undermine Christianity.

      • It seems as if it is a book I would have to read to appreciate and understand. From your post, it seems to raise the question then, of what real love is. For if a mother truly loves her child, she should desire his fulfillment of purpose above all else. This desire is never without great pain, even in the most magnanimous of mothers. To be a mother, especially the mother of a son, is to accept constant and perpetual separation in a way that is not the same as with a daughter. It seems to me then the real test is what does one DO with the pain and lack of understanding and even grudging acceptance or fierce refusal to accept the requisite separation? As far as provocative…I suppose I would as “to what end?” I like provocative when it forwards deeper thought or re-evaluation, but I tend to like it less if it is done simply to shock. What is your take? I really like your point about reshaping characters — I do appreciate that and am amazed at the creativity authors demonstrate. The Rhys novel is a favorite of mine, but then Bertha and I have a “thing.” 😉

      • I think that Mr. Tóibín’s Mary genuinely does not believe that her son is the Messiah, but rather that his “fulfillment of purpose,” as you put it, is to live and have a family. It’s his (futile, as she sees it) death that she does not accept, not the natural separation of parents and children. I think the novel is asking questions about what we accept as truth, how historical/religious figures might speak for themselves (or not), and how much our own beliefs are shaped by what others claim to witness. I think another question he might be asking is this: If you believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, would it really matter to you if his own mother didn’t?

        Also, I think devotion to Mary is too strong to be even a little dismantled by this book.

      • Thank you for sharing your perspective in such detail, Carolyn. It helps me so much to see a bit more into the text. The issues/questions you point towards are intriguing and would be of value to ponder further. Thanks again for calling the book to my attention and for your patience with my straining to grasp the author’s purpose.

        Off topic entirely — I’m nearly 1/2 way through Brideshead and LOVE it. Any tips for teaching in your vast experience with and love for the novel?

      • I’m so happy you like Brideshead! I think what helped my students most was plenty of historical context, since the novel is bookended by the two wars. Also helpful: showing just the first few minutes of Chariots of Fire, which opens around the same time, to get a flavor for what it was like to be a young, non-veteran man heading off to college.

        Don’t you just love the passage with the strawberries and champagne?

      • Yes, I agree with the need to establish context — I see that across the board with the novels I’ve chosen for this year. I haven’t seen Chariots of Fire for YEARS — will make it a point to check that out and use. Did you watch the more recent Brideshead film,, with Emma Thompson? Wondering if I might take another peek at it — and there is an older one with Jeremy Irons, I think….? Strawberry scene is idyllic…..

  4. I had not heard of this, but I want to read it now. Thanks for telling me about it. I’ve actually been trying to learn more about both her and Mary Magdalene lately, and the one book I read (a “historical” and somewhat academic one) had some good information but wasn’t interesting or written well enough to be reader friendly. I’m used to reading dense academic stuff, but this book was poorly constructed on top of being dense. Anyway, this one looks like more fun and although not historical, will make me think.

  5. Wow. This sounds like an interesting one for sure. I don’t think I’d like it, from what you’ve said. Honestly, I get frustrated with a lot of the “theories” around Jesus’s life, like The Da Vinci Code and such. I know that Emily has read that one, though, and liked it. I guess, like Angela, I’m suspicious that it’s just a spiteful attack on Christianity and void of any respect. But I do understand the author imagining and wanting to work out the definite problem of how hard it is to believe Jesus’s story—even for Jesus’s own mother. Does the author discuss Jesus’s birth and the other miracles that, in the Bible, Mary sees? Like Jesus turning the water into wine, etc. How does he respond to those events?

    • I don’t think of this one as a theory, but I’m very interested in how the author approaches material that’s taken as fact in his culture of origin (the author is Irish). There’s no discussion of the birth, but the wedding at Cana is one of the events Mary recalls (she doesn’t see a miracle). The book is so short that it would only take an hour or two to see what you think for yourself! 🙂

      As I’ve tried to explain, maybe not very well, the novel is jarring, because the Christian story is so foundational to so many other texts (and to believers’ lives, I think), but I do not think that it is spiteful or disrespectful — unless disrespect is challenging accepted wisdom.

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