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?

Recommended Reading: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer


As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good epistolary novel, and here’s one, slender and new, that I hope you’ll love too.

It’s no secret that Carlene Bauer takes as her models for her correspondents Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell; in fact, several reviewers have complained that those (real) voices have not been satisfactorily mimicked, or that Ms. Bauer ought to have worked with material of her own devising.

I confess that I am unmoved by both these objections. It may be heretical to say it, as someone who attended BU and sat in the Lowell room from time to time, but confessional is not my favored poetic brand, and I have been derelict in my scholarly duty to thoroughly read O’Connor (though what I have read is sublime). And why shouldn’t writers dip into the past or borrow historical figures, in whole or in part, as they tell their own stories? [That said, I think the voices of the wholly imagined characters — Claire and Ted — come through very strongly.]

So. I loved this book for its earnest but unwearisome approach to matters of faith, writing, love, and family, which, as you might suppose, are all connected. But humor, so often lost in conversations about weighty subjects (an understatement, I know), is wry and sly and happening all the time in this novel. Here’s my favorite zinger: “The Beats are really nothing more than a troop of malevolent Boy Scouts trying to earn badges for cultural arson” (14).

[Sidebar: I will be stealing one of Frances’s lines for my Christmas/Hannukah cards this year: “Love and joy come to you, and to your wassail too” (9). I know it’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, and yet: look at me go!]

I loved the way Frances and Bernard proceed almost immediately into matters of import, which I’ve found can happen when one starts a correspondence with someone not well known and not likely to be seen again, even if that’s something one would like. As I read the novel, I thought about my own treasured friendships, and resolved to write more letters.

[I’m rather terrible at keeping up with correspondence, though; do you have any tips for becoming a reliable letter-writer?]