Today I read Colm Tóibín’s 2013 novella, The Testament of Mary. It’s very short, 104 pages in this edition, with pretty big print. To read this in more than a day would be a challenge. So no “oh, how did you read a whole book so fast?” comments, please. There’s about an hour’s reading in here. I’m getting bogged down. Move on.
This was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, and is an acclaimed historical novel dealing with the same period (and based on similar source materials) as a project I am working on myself. So it seemed natural and posit that I should check out the competition. As it were. Not that Colm and I are rivals. Though we are going to remain on first name terms, at least in this blog, as I don’t know how to pronounce his surname and I struggle to write things I can’t read aloud with confidence.
The Testament of Mary is about the life of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. It is about her witnessing possible miracles (though she is always sceptical) and the violent execution of her son, whilst broadly exploring the motives and the honesty of (for want of a less Catholic phrase) the Fathers of the Church. She is regularly questioned about the things she has seen, and she comments on and tries to ignore her son’s followers as they seek deep meaning and universal truth amongst his actions. This is not, however, what Colm’s novella is about – it is a story of a woman’s loss, an aged woman left without her husband, her son and her friends. It is reflective, it is lyrical and it is richly descriptive, particularly the violence of the Passion.
The strengths of the text lie in its ability to avoid ridiculousness. Though there are miraculous occurrences that SEEM to have actually occurred within the narrative of the text, there are others that are implicitly fabricated. The weaving together of traditional Christian ideology with a sceptical, but referential, tone, offers a great insight into a non-original character. The book is in the first person, narrated by Mary, and she avoids the use of Jesus’ name. She also does not name her husband or Joseph of Arimathea, yet Mary, Martha and Lazarus do get to keep their names. I suppose Tóibín (it feels disrespectful and chummy calling him Colm) expects a level of knowledge that is, certainly, of the level I am at. Anyone with any familiarity with the basic myths of Christianity should understand what is being subverted and what is being dramatised. The Wedding at Cana appears, for example. It was enjoyable, for me, to read richly evoked scenes I was aware of.
There is, thankfully, no crossover with my own project, but it has been reassuring to see that a modern, literary take on this period and these topics can work. YES!
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