At 104 pages, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, seems too slight to do justice to the enormity of its subject. Yet emotion vibrates from the pages with such intensity that the book’s impact lingers long after you have finished. Based on Toibin’s stage play, Testament, it reveals the tangle of emotions overwhelming Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, in the period leading up to and directly following her son’s death.
It peels away the religious dogma and leaves the anger, frustration and terrible loss of a loving mother who could not protect her son from a looming danger to which she had become increasingly alert. Compounding this is her shame that fear for her own safety prevented her from being at his side at the moment of his death.
The story of the killing of Jesus and his subsequent rising from the dead is one of the most famous narratives in the world, the cataclysmic “birth” of one of the world’s dominant religions. But through Mary’s eyes we see it as an intensely personal, human event, the finale of a carefully calculated set-up to legitimise the killing of someone who was challenging the status quo. And the fear for her own potential implication in her son’s actions gradually grows to contempt and rebellion. It is as if the realisation of the scenario she feared most, liberated her.
She doesn’t share the euphoria of Jesus’s devout followers. To her the death of her son is not the fulfilment of a spiritual destiny but a brutal and unnecessary sacrifice that angers her.
‘He was the Son of God,’ the man said, ‘and he was sent by his father to redeem the world’. ‘By his death, he gave us life,’ the other said. ‘By his death, he redeemed the world.’ I turned towards them then and whatever it was in the expression on my face, the rage against them, the grief, the fear, they both looked up at me alarmed …’
Through Mary’s eyes we get a completely different view of biblical events like the marriage feast at Cana or the raising from the dead of Lazarus. No doubt there will be Christians who will object to Toibin’s take on an event so intrinsic to their religion. It will be interesting to hear the reaction to the novel from non-Christians.
Debate about whether The Testament of Mary is a book or a novella has been going on since it made the Booker long list but in the great scheme of things that seems irrelevant. The power of the plot and the lingering resonance of each carefully-crafted page make its inclusion on the Man Booker short-list well deserved.