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.

Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn (2009)

Brooklyn

I can’t understand why I haven’t read Colm Tóibín before. He’s outstanding. I admire his writing, his luminous prose. It’s not easy to say why it is so great but it is. His descriptions, the details he chooses, the settings, are so precise and conjure up a whole world.

It’s the 1950s and Ellis Lacey is living in Ireland with her mother and older sister. She wants to be an accountant but is only a shop assistant. Thanks to her sister, she can emigrate to America where she’s hired in a shop, goes to an accounting school and betters herself. Here, she meets a young Italian man and begins a relationship with him. After tragedy strikes, she has to decide whether she will stay in America or go back to Ireland. The novel has four parts. The first is set in Ireland and on the ship crossing over to America, the second and third are set in Brooklyn, the last in Ireland.

Ellis is a passive character but interesting as she’s introspective and a keen observer of what happens around her and inside of herself. I loved reading about the way she processed things that had happened to her during the day. In the beginning this passivity isn’t exactly attractive but it’s not as infuriating as it is in the last part. Ellis never speaks up, never fights for herself and in the end, she pays a high price for this behaviour. One aspect that stood out for me was the way Tóibín wrote about the experience of being an immigrant. I’ve lived abroad a few times, in some cases in places where I knew hardly anyone. Many of the feelings described, brought those experiences back.

Here’s a quote showing Ellis in the shop she’s working in Brooklyn.

The morning was full of frenzy; she did not for one moment have peace to look around her. Everyone’s voice was loud, and there were times when she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River, glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently. This scene kept coming to her as she filled the bag with notes and coins and women of all types approached her asking where certain items of clothing could be found or if they could return what they had bought in exchange for other merchandise, or simply wishing to purchase what they had in their hands.

Ellis may be the main character but there are numerous other characters, some who only appear briefly. They are all complex and rich in facets. One could also say that the two main settings, the eponymous Brooklyn and Ireland are treated like characters. They are described in detail, juxtaposed, compared, contrasted. Two very distinct worlds come alive between these pages.

I highly recommend Brooklyn. It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to read more of Tóibín. Just be warned – Ellis can, at times, be an infuriating character.

If you’d like to read a more in-depth review here’s Max’s take on the novel.