The day’s deep indifference to what is said

This is my review of The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.

In this novella, Mary the mother of Jesus – although he is never referred to by name – recalls aspects of her son's life, the preaching, miracles and his crucifixion. Her take on events is original, and may offend some believers. It does not trouble me that Tóibín may have altered the order of events and inserted some "inaccuracies" in what is anyway a controversial reality.

According to Mary, the disciples were misfits and her son used his talents to lead them into trouble. She implies that he raised Lazarus from the dead with reluctance, as if he knew it to be a misuse of his powers. Certainly, Lazarus's sister Martha was "afraid that what she had asked for was being granted" and it is clear that Lazarus is unnerved and bewildered by his experience of death, and no one feels at ease with him afterwards, wanting but not daring to ask questions.

Mary perceives her son's talk in public as "high flown" and "riddles, using strange proud terms to describe himself and his task in the world", a kind of manic grandiosity when he describes himself as the Son of God.

Mary describes how, to her abiding shame, she ran from the scene of the crucifixion before her son was dead, to avoid the risk of being captured herself. Afterwards, she is dogged by earnest men, I assume the gospel writers, who wish to extract every word of her first hand testament for posterity. One of them is delighted by her dream of seeing her son raised from the dead, which implies that her memories will be twisted to suit the facts of a new religion, or discarded if they do not fit. Hiding in Ephesus from the authorities who killed her son, Mary is drawn to the goddess Artemis who gives her a sense of release. When her minders assure her that her son has redeemed the world through his death she responds that "It was not worth it".

The prose style is striking, eloquent, often poetical – not the first person "voice" of a simple, illiterate woman living in the middle east two thousand years ago, but rather that of the writer. This had the effect of distancing me somewhat from Mary's grief, although I found the work gripping. It seemed to lose its way a little after the crucifixion, but comes to a clear conclusion.

In my attempt to confirm what the Irish Catholic, at least by upbringing, author meant to convey, I discovered that this book was first produced as a stage monologue, in the Broadway production of which, "Mary is seen smoking what appear to be joints of marijuana and swigging from a commercially labelled liquor bottle". This concerns me as so much of the strength of the piece seems to lie in the quality of prose writing to be read and reflected upon individually, rather than declaimed with dramatic effects. I appreciate that the lyrical style lends itself to being spoken aloud, which may appeal more to some people.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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