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Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary

I must admit that Tóibín has never really worked for me and this book does not change my views. Tóibín has already written about mothers (his book of essays was called New Ways to Kill Your Mother) so, perhaps, it was inevitable that he should write about one of the most famous fictional mothers, the Virgin Mary. As well as writing this novel(la), there was also a stage version, which was far less successful than this book. This book tells Mary’s story from well after the death of her son and tells it not as a woman who is convinced of her son’s divine nature but purely as a mother who loves her son. Tóibín says he was inspired by Tintoretto’s Crucifixion.

The story shows Mary as a human, telling her story of her grieving for her son. She usually refers to him as my son, never by name. (I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’, ‘the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.) She is telling her story to the gospel writers (something for which, of course, there is absolutely no historical evidence whatsoever and almost certainly never happened), now living in Ephesus, in the safe house John has found for her, fearing that she might have been arrested as others associated with him were. She recounts how he moved from being her lovely son to a man who was surrounded by people she mistrusted, who manipulated him for their own political ends and who made him out to be the Son of God, a view she did not share. We follow her account of major events that are recorded in the Bible, such as the Raising of Lazarus and the Wedding at Cana. In particular, we follow the events leading up to the Crucifixion. She is forewarned by a man called Marcus and she is encouraged to flee before he is arrested, which she does.

But Mary is sceptical of the whole business.

‘His suffering was necessary,’ he [John] interrupted, ‘it was how mankind would be saved.’

‘Saved?’ I asked and raised my voice. ‘Who has been saved?’

‘Those who came before him and those who live now and those who are not yet born,’ he said.

‘Saved from death?’ I asked.

‘Saved for eternal life,’ he said. ‘Everyone in the world will know eternal life.’

‘Oh, eternal life!’ I replied. ‘Oh, everyone in the world!’

She is sceptical of the disciples. (He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal.) In short, she is first and foremost a mother, not a follower, not a disciple, not a believer and it is as a mother that Tóibín presents her. I have no doubt that, for many, Christians and non-Christians, this will work. It did not really work for me, though I can recognise that Tóibín writes well.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Viking