The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín – An Irish Novella – A Post a Day in May

I remember how intrigued I was when Colm Toíbín’s novella The Testament of Mary, based on his own play, came out in 2012. I love it when authors give historical, fictional or mythical characters a voice. Even though, I was so keen on reading it, it languished on my piles for so many years. Finally, thanks to my project A Post a Day in May, I’ve read it and loved it. It’s beautiful and daring. Engaging and thought-provoking.

The book is set many years, decades even after the crucifixion. Mary lives alone, in isolation in a house in Ephesus. She has two guardians who visit frequently. They ask her many questions about the past, about Jesus. She doesn’t talk. She keeps her memories, of which she has many, to herself.

I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.

She has reason not to talk to these men because they have an agenda. They want to make sure that her memories and what she says about them corresponds to their truth. They are about to write the history of Jesus and their view, their interpretation of what happened differ completely from Mary’s.

It’s never said who these two men are, but as Toíbín mentions in an article, it could be St. Paul and St. John. It’s not important. What is important is what they wrote and that is the story we are familiar with.

Mary’s story is completely different. It’s a story of loss and grief for a son, who had lost his way. A son who attracted misfits, criminals, and fanatics and had to pay a terrible prize for the turmoil he and his followers created. She speaks about several of the most famous elements of the story of Jesus. Lazarus, the wedding at Cana, the walking on water. All these things she hasn’t witnessed and doubts. What she saw is a man who barely recognizes her, who has become a stranger, but a stranger she still loves deeply. While she hasn’t seen his “miracles”, she’s seen the crucifixion and has been traumatized by it. And then she tells us something very surprising – she wasn’t there when they took him off the cross. She didn’t witness his resurrection. She fled because she knew they would come after her and after other members of the family, friends, and followers.

In Ephesus, she also remembers the days when she was a practicing Jew. The Sabbaths she liked so much. Nowadays, she prays to the goddess Artemis.

I lived mostly in silence, but somehow the wildness that was in the very air, the air in which the dead had been brought back to life and water changed into wine and the very waves of the sea made calm by a man walking on water, this great disturbance in the world made its way like creeping mist or dampness into the two or three rooms I inhabited.

I loved this book. Loved the tone and mood. Mary’s sorrow, grief, and trauma are beautifully described. I was surprised to read her interpretation of things. It’s against everything that we know from the testaments. Jesus is described like a rebel but not exactly like a rebel with a cause. More like an outlaw. I like that Toíbín gave Mary her humanity back, looked at what happened through the eyes of a mother who had to witness her son being crucified. The crucifixion is described in detail. No gratuitous violence but still explicit.

I wonder what practicing Christians, especially Catholics, think about this book. I haven’t found a lot online. I was raised a Catholic but since I’m anti-clerical, I left the church a long time ago. I was surprised that I found some elements disturbing. The story of Lazarus, for example, reads like a creepy zombie story. I even found this book sacrilegious in places. Even if he might not have been the son of God, I always think of Jesus as supremely good. In the end, it looks like Toíbín wants to say the religion only exists because of the interpretation of the facts by those who wrote it down.

This is a short book and, still, one could write pages and pages about it. I hope I could do this complex book justice. It’s so beautiful and engaging.

17 thoughts on “The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín – An Irish Novella – A Post a Day in May

  1. This sounds such an interesting interpretation of a well known story. I’ve struggled to get on with Colm Toíbín’s writing in the past – I can see he’s a really skilled writer but I just couldn’t get into his novels. This novella sounds a good place to try again!

    • It’s very interesting. I also think I won’t forget this easily. I’ve only reD Brooklyn and adored it. His prose is so luminous and precise. I hope you’ll find a book you’ll like. A short book like this would be a good place. Which one did you try?

  2. CT is particularly good (it seems to me, but I’m a man) at writing from a woman’s perspective (Nora Webster is a good example). I’ve not been attracted to reading this novella, as I have something of an aversion to retellings of biblical stories – even if, as you suggest, this one is pretty subversive. But I daresay I’ll give it a go, one day. Well done for keeping up with your project! I’m aiming for maybe a post every two or three days.

    • I think he does women well. Or, as some say, he’s brilliant at depicting mothers. And this is a great example. I get your aversion but this is really subversive as I don’t think of myself as a Christian but still found this quite bold. I would be interested to know what you think of it.
      Thank about the project. I wouldn’t have thought I would enjoy it quite as much. Every two to three days is a nice rhythm.

  3. This is my favourite book by Toíbín. I was raised a Catholic and now I am an agnostic (so perhaps I am not the best person to commento on the topic), and I think this book does have some sacrilegious elements – but this is done in a more nuanced and complex way than Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, for example. Great review, Caroline! 🙂

    • Thank you, Juliana. ☺️ So, like me then. Raised Catholic like me then. I don’t consider myself being a Christian anymore but there are some things one doesn’t shake off completely. Obviously, Mary has another importance for Catholics. I’m glad to see you too felt it had sacrilegious elements. I haven’t read Saramago‘s novel. I think Toíbín did it very well. I would just be interested if a practicing Catholic or any Christian would feel offended by this. I really liked it very much. Might even reread it some day.

  4. This is a Toíbín book I haven’t read, though I very much like his work particularly the way he writes about relationships between mothers and children. There’s such depth to those portrayals.

    • It’s fantastic. Her feelings are described so well. It’s very intense. One of the things he does is tell ing the story the way a mother would experience it. The grief, the pain.

    • I didn’t expect it to be this subversive. He writes beautifully and it’s so thought provoking. I’d be interested to know what you think of it.

  5. This looks very fascinating, Caroline! I am wondering now what actually happened to Mary after the crucification. Did she live in the same place for the rest of her life? Did she move away somewhere? I never thought about it before. Is there a historical text about her? It is interesting that Toíbín has imagined her life in this book. Would love to read it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • It looks like she really moved to Ephesus but I would have to explore more. I never thought about what happened to her later. As if her life ended with his death. It seems that mothers is one of his main topics, so coming from a Catholic country, it’s not surprising he chose to write about Mary. She’s so important for Catholics. As a young kid and girl I would pray to her, not to Jesus or God. I’d love to know what you think of it.

  6. Great review. The book sounds fantastic. I am an atheist. But I am fascinated by religion. It sounds like the actual story here is a more plausible version of events then is in scriptures.

    As an alternate story from what religious folks believe, it sounds a little like Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

    • Thank you, Brian, like you, I find religion utterly fascinating and his interpretation is very thought provoking. I could imagine you’d like it too. His writing is beautiful. I’ve not read The Satanic Verses. Luckily, nobody wants Toíbín dead for this daring approach.

  7. Pingback: Looking Back on A Post a Day in May | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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