The Testament of Mary is, I suppose, quite a controversial book. Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Colm Toíbín’s novella is a character study of an aging Mary remembering the death of her son. This genre of biblical revisionism is not entirely original, as I’ll go into more detail below, but I still really enjoyed this work.
The first thing that struck me was the way the book is presented. The title, which clearly evokes the Bible, and the cover (at least of the version I read, which is pictured above), I think make clear who the subject of the novella is. However, the blurb is quite vague, referring only to Mary by her hardly uncommon forename, and there is nothing that clearly places it in the context of the Gospels. Nor does the text; the novella is 104 pages long, and it is only on page 24 that a reference to Cana all but spells it out. We then have to wait a further handful before references to Martha and Lazarus remove all doubt. This disparity confuses me, because the trappings of cover and title make it clear what the book is about, but it’s not the sort of story that you would go into without any at least an inkling of what it was about.
Perhaps the lack of confirmation seeks to underline the point of the novel (or at least the point that I took away from it), which is that while Jesus is inextricable from the story, it’s not about him and his actions in the way that Gospel narratives tend to be. Instead it’s about Mary as a mother and a person in her own right. A real, human, mother, not the saintly Madonna, but a woman who gave birth to a son who was, as far as she’s concerned, doing his utmost to get himself in trouble. Reading about Mary’s remorse for her son, but more importantly her husband is incredibly touching, and I think that they really help build an emotionally engaging version of Mary, compared to the rather sparse depictions of her in the gospels. More importantly, her opinion of the apostles, two of whom keep hounding her for information and opinions on her son, and are the closest thing we have to antagonists, is an interesting one. Mary, the mother who despite her disapproval of her son’s actions, can’t quite bring herself to blame him entirely for his death, and so seeks to ascribe some of the blame to the people who followed him, whose encouragement only took him further along the path to his death.
I suppose that it is easy to see The Testament of Mary as disrespectful. Certainly the reviewers over at Bookermarks both felt this way. Mary never follows her son’s beliefs and actions, as evidenced by this quotation, in the final days of her son’s life, and the relationship with the apostles I mentioned before. More controversially, there are a number of references to Mary, in her twilight years, having forsaken the Judaism she so fervently believed in, moving instead towards the Roman cult of Minerva, which I can understand would be all but blasphemous if taken as being a legitimate suggestion. However, I think that if you approach the book expecting it to be a lost part of the Biblical Canon, rather than as a work of fiction telling the story of a supposed “historical Mary”, you’re going to have trouble with the themes.
That said, in comparison to the two other fictionalised takes on the life of Jesus I’ve read, The Testament of Mary is easily the best. Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt was a product of her devout Catholic sensibilities and though it did utilise a number of traditions featured in the Apocrypha, was fairly uninspired and lacking in anything new. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by outspoken atheist Philip Pullman, was even further from the biblical “truth” than The Testament of Mary, depicting the figure we know as Jesus Christ as actually a pair of twins, Jesus and Christ. The former is a benevolent and charismatic teacher, while the latter is determined (and encouraged) to present his brother’s actions as the work of a divine god, essentially writing the gospel story for us.
The Testament of Mary succeeds where both of these works fail, in that Toíbín creates a compelling story that cuts through the issues of religion to make it possible even for people who don’t adhere to the Christian tradition to empathise with. My only real complaint is that it was a bit short, and I think it’s this, more than any controversy or fault in the writing that mean it probably won’t win the Booker Prize, despite it’s well deserved nomination.