Reviewing The Testament of Mary
Article: Liam Fitz-Gerald – Contributor
Year Published: 2012
Length: 104 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
As a student writing for a presumably majority student readership, it’s safe to say that sometimes our greatest challenge is saying so much in so little space. Yet, Colm Tóibín has accomplished this in his novella, The Testament of Mary. It portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, in a book—reminiscent of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ— that could unsettle those of religious sensibilities, but also move believers and non-believers in its courageous and harrowing depictions of a mother’s sorrow.
Tóibín is no stranger to writing. He is the author of eight works of fiction, including award winning novels The Heather Blazing (1992) and Brooklyn (2009) winners of the Encore Awards and Costa Awards, respectively. He is also the author of seven books of non-fiction and two plays. Tóibín was born in 1955 in Enniscorthy, Ireland (consequently, the setting of several of his stories, like The Heather Blazing and Brooklyn), and received post-secondary education at University College Dublin. He has written for and edited several Irish newspapers including Hibernia and Magill. Tóibín has also taught creative writing at prestigious universities like Columbia and Princeton. The Testament of Mary is the latest in a long and successful writing career, but is a departure from Tóibín’s frequent setting of Ireland and the travails of its people.
The novella is narrated by Mary, who recalls her son’s crucifixion. In her later life, Mary is visited constantly by her “guards,” two men with an interest in the crucifixion. They ask her for details about the events leading up to the affair (it is implied that it is two of the twelve apostles). Their constant questions anger Mary, who finds them insensitive to her grief. Mary remembers that her son left for Jerusalem to seek work, but years later, hears that he is performing miracles in the country. Fearing his safety, she seeks to bring him home, but as events central to the Gospels unfold, Mary realizes her action are in vain.
For a novella, Tóibín packs many themes and emotions. For themes, he emphasizes the transformation of the familiar into the unfamiliar. The most obvious example of this is the relation between Mary and her son. Describing him as “a part of [her] flesh, his heart having grown from [her] heart,” Tóibín paints a loving relationship between mother and son that changes as the latter realizes what he must do, regardless of what his mother says. Mary recognizes her son as familiar but also unfamiliar saying, “he was so far from the child [she] remembered.” As for emotions, Mary’s grief and how she deals with her son’s death is crucial to the story. As a journalist who lived in tumultuous Ireland, grief is likely not an unfamiliar subject to Tóibín. Whatever the influence, he portrays very well, a mother so hurt by the loss of her son, that the reader empathizes her frustration with the constant reminder created by her questioners.
If The Testament of Mary has any flaws, it is simply that it is too short. At 104 pages, it is a quick read. The reader may wish to take it slow to absorb the thought-provoking themes. The reader will be treated to Tóibín’s lengthy sentences, and colourful prose, especially his use of stimulating metaphors. As it deals with a religious subject, it will not escape scrutiny now or in the future. But with anything that is challenging, it can cause personal growth and reflection. Two things well worth experiencing.