Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin Review


The Testament of Mary is presented as a missing part of the Bible told in the first person by Mary, Jesus’ mother. Missing (or suppressed) because Colm Toibin’s Mary is a sceptic of the Christian faith who relates memories of her son that question the foundation of the other testaments that paved the way to the world’s most popular religion. 

I have no dog in this fight - I’m not religious at all so I’m not saying I disliked this book because it’s blasphemous or dares to adopt the voice of the venerated holy mother Mary, particularly as she’s portrayed contrary to her popular image in a non-maternal way (she and her son don’t really connect), or any of that crap. My critique is much less nuanced: I found it boring. 

I appreciate that Toibin’s Mary is written as a real person, a mother who outlived her son and is saddened by it and angry at his disciples who she blames for his premature and violent demise. 

The novella has its moments here and there as Mary relates some key scenes - the turning of water into wine, walking on water, Lazarus rising from the dead - with observations that hint at their phoniness. 

It’s like she’s suggesting that her son was a patsy, lifted up by others, knowing he would be killed by the Romans, but allowing for his myth to be created thus concentrating power with the emerging Christian faith. I can see why some Christians might be offended as the book is a subtle but very deliberate sideswipe at the religion with its core story presented as a sham. 

As shallow as it is though, I was mostly uninterested in Mary’s story. Besides her perspective on those famous Bible scenes, she mostly spends her days miserable in her home, being watched by a couple of her son’s followers. It’s a one-note portrayal: a sad mother who’s lost her son but bears the misery mutely because of the patriarchal society she lives in. You can only read about that bitterness for so long, especially as she’s uneducated and basically devoid of a personality; she’s just not a very interesting person to have as a main character. 

Toibin’s style is very much like Henry James, one of his major influences, who was a master of writing subtle stories about emotion but not really containing any. And if there’s any writer I would avoid over any other, it’s Henry James! The man’s writing was incomparably dull - and yes I’m aware that I sound like a philistine! 

The Testament of Mary is technically well written but reads as a quite crushingly snoozeworthy story. Maybe if I was more familiar with the biblical representations of these people I would’ve appreciated it more. If you read only for prose quality, you’ll enjoy this - if you read for entertainment, like me, you’ll be glad that it’s a very short book at just over 100 pages!

The Testament of Mary

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