Friday, 13 December 2013

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

I’m a bit late to the Booker Prize Shortlist, we all know who won, but I’m still hoping to make my way through the list anyway.  Starting with this one because it’s the shortest and I read it in an evening.

The Testament of Mary is a stream of consciousness, recounted to the reader by Mary (as in the Virgin one, mother of Jesus and that) as she looks at her life, switching between descriptions of her current situation and vivid memories of her past and culminating in the shocking and barbaric crucifixion of her beloved son on a hill in Calvary.  As with many works of fiction that tell biblical stories, it is not the familiar version of events that we are accustomed to hearing.

The novel is a flowing exploration of loss, rage, exhaustion, grief and incomprehension and the sketchy relationship between truth and faith.  It’s a swift read, but a fluid one that manages to transport the reader to back to the first century by creating a sort of silent, unknown community.  I got the impression of dusty bustle and heat, Mary traipsing back and forth through the towns and villages on her mission, though the surroundings are not explored in any great detail.  I suppose most people know them well enough, so a population of characters is all we need. 

Mary is beautifully lyrical in her lamentations, describing her love for her son who she sees as being vulnerable and exploited, in over his head and surrounded by dangerous and untrustworthy men.  She recounts her happy memories of her son’s childhood and her contentment on Sabbath days of the past.  But she’s incredibly bitter at the same time- bitter about the situation in which she now finds herself, bitter at the thought of what has become of her family and her reclusive and sullen life in the shadows.  She constantly tortures herself wondering if there is anything that she could have done or said to have changed the course of events despite knowing deep down that there is nothing that could have been done, something that I’m sure that every reader can relate to.  I really enjoyed the contrast between the two sides of Mary: she is certainly much more human, with more depth than the angelic stained-glass, weeping and praying Mary that is obviously more familiar to us.  Neither is she as sedate or as demure as the gentle mother Mary that rode to Bethlehem on the donkey- at one point she threatens two disciples at knife-point.  The ravages and the conflict of grief were depicted effortlessly and I was enthralled by the fleshing-out of one of the most famous but pretty underdeveloped characters in literature.

Throughout the book, Mary is at a loss to explain why her son, once so much a part of her, has behaved in such a way that has resulted in the most agonising and violent of deaths, ignoring the desperate warnings from herself.  Pretty much ignoring everything she’s said throughout all interactions depicted in the novel.  Jesus comes across as kind of arrogant, though it’s evident in the way that Mary speaks of him that she doesn’t think so, she sees him as lost and dangerously misguided.  The difference between what’s actual and what’s perceived is a prominent theme throughout the novel and it’s something that Mary, bastion of truth that she is, is not immune to confusing.  She seems aware throughout that she is only offering a version of events and that there are bound to be many more.

At present, Mary is elderly, living in exile and is constantly attended by two unnamed men.  They interview and interrogate her daily, demanding that she relives and recounts the days and hours leading up to the crucifixion.  They are not interested in facts or eyewitnesses accounts.  They want Mary to remember their versions of events, the version that they are writing into the Gospel.  I loved Mary’s tone of defiance and of gentle un-cooperation.  The two men were desperate to hear from her mouth the fiction that they had created, but Mary would only give them the fact, and found a rebellious pleasure in doing so.

I really enjoyed this read- it was intense and slightly overwhelming at times, but the presence and the weight that Mary’s voice, so full of anger and grief, succeeded in to carrying the narrative in a way that made it very compelling.  The pace of the book is surprisingly fast for a story that is in reality quite short.   I loved the lyrical language and the gifting of a voice to one of history’s most silently humble figures.  As a lifelong atheist, I really enjoy the idea of literature that offers alternative versions of the Bible stories that we are force-fed as schoolchildren.  I think any re-workings of myths just have that extra flavour to them that comes from playing games with what’s familiar.

If you liked this, I would also recommend the amazing The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, which also casts a new, more Earthly eye over the life and story of Jesus, his family and contemporaries.

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