Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

“They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.” So speaks Mary, grieving mother of Jesus, about the disciples who followed her son and now aim to deify him with or without her help in Colm Tóibín’s heart-wrenching new novella The Testament of Mary. In this work of fiction, Tóibín is not simply adding a new twist to an age-old bible story. Instead, he is looking to completely rewire one of Christianity’s central figures, making Mary into someone who never believed in her son’s divinity and who is now overcome with rage as others attempt to turn him into an icon for the world.

Tóibín establishes a number of challenges for himself in this book, each of which he pulls off beautifully. Chief among these is capturing the voice of Mary herself, a woman shattered with grief over the death of her son but also disgusted by what his disciples are attempting to do in the wake of his crucifixion. In Tóibín’s hands, Mary reads like a kind of proto-feminist (“It takes me weeks to eradicate the stench of men from these rooms so that I can breathe air that is not fouled by them”), a proto-humanist who looks to confront and contest the zealotry her son has left behind. She has been exiled to a house in Ephesus in the years immediately following her son’s murder, and his followers come to see her regularly, pressuring her to conform to the narrative about her son that they have already concocted.

Another challenge for Tóibín is to describe the various miracles detailed in the bible while casting doubts over their legitimacy in both our minds and in Mary’s. He does this in a number of ways: through sheer hearsay, as in the rising of Lazarus from the dead; through an elaborate slight of hand, as in the turning of water into wine at the wedding; through myth building, as in the story of Jesus walking on water and quieting a storm. In each case Tóibín leaves enough of a gap in the event for the possibility of, well, if not us believing in these miracles, then at least those who are present to believe in them. He paints of picture of Jesus as someone with a growing sense of megalomania, and each event that “proves” his divinity only feeds that belief more.

The climax of the book is, not surprising, the crucifixion itself. Tóibín describes it with harrowing verisimilitude, capturing the horror of it through Mary’s eyes. He wisely does not project the anguish of the event directly onto her: she is able to maintain perspective (“the pain was his and not mine”) while at the same time being completely destroyed by the events that unfold in front of her. For Mary, there is no resurrection – just a profound sense of loss and waste, compounded by those who need these fundamental fabrications to form the basis of their faith.

Tóibín once again proves himself adept at getting inside the minds of historical figures (see my recent review of his novel The Master, which is about Henry James) and revealing the world to us through their eyes. The Testament of Mary is a well-crafted and disturbing addition to his growing oeuvre.

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