The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

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Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I arrived at my reading of The Testament of Mary bearing two significant pieces of mental baggage and it is only fair to reveal them, since both undoubtedly effected my impression:

I am not a religious person and generally don’t react well to fiction based on religious themes — Marilynne Robinson is a good example of an excellent novelist who falls victim to this bias for me. So despite my appreciation of Colm Toibin (this is the fourth of his works reviewed here and I have read others pre-blog), I was not inclined to buy this 104-page novella when it appeared in October last year.

On the positive side, I was intrigued by the project’s history. The Testament of Mary began literary life as a monologue at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival. Toibin adapted that script for this volume. The dramatic version also was mounted on Broadway earlier this year, to decidedly mixed results — while it garnered three Tony nominations (including Best Play), small audiences meant it closed after only two weeks of a scheduled 12-week run.

booker logo The novel opens in Ephesus where Mary is living in exile years after the Crucifixion. Two of the disciples are serving as her protectors/keepers/jailers, each probing her experiences for inclusion in their particular Gospel. The conceit of the monologue is that it is Mary’s real thoughts on her life as the mother of Jesus — she has no intention of sharing those with her guardians.

That supplies the most distinctive feature of The Testament of Mary — Toibin’s Mary is very much a cranky, grieving mother, not the Blessed Virgin of conventional religion. She is adamant in seeing herself as the mother of a child named Jesus, not the Mother of the Son of God. (That helps to explain the two-week New York theatre run: the monologue not only does not appeal to the non-religious, believers find it anti-Christian.)

Consider for example her characterization of the “misfits” her son attracts, known as disciples to the faithful:

But I should have paid more attention to that time before he left, to who came to the house, to what was discussed at my table. It was not shyness or reticence that made me spend my time in the kitchen when those I did not know came, it was boredom. Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, sent me into the kitchen, or the garden; something of their awkward hunger, or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them, made me want to serve the food, or water, or whatever, and then disappear before I had heard a single word of what they were talking about. They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy, and then the talk was too loud; there were too many of them talking at the same time, or, even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge, and I often found myself walking the dusty lanes with a basket as though I needed bread, or visiting a neighbour who did not need visitors in the hope that when I returned the young men would have dispersed or that my son would have stopped speaking.

I suspect even more upsetting to Christian believers is Mary’s reaction when her two guardian disciples explain the virgin birth to her:

I must have looked perplexed.

‘She does not understand,’ he said to his companion, and it was true. I did not understand.

‘He was indeed the Son of God,’ he said.

And then, patiently, he began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son’s conception as the other nodded and encouraged him. I barely listened. I had other things to do. I know what happened. I know that my own happiness in those first months when I was with child felt strange and special, that I lived in a way that was different, that I often stood at the window and looked at the light outside and felt that the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined. Later, I learned that this is how we all prepare ourselves to give birth and to nurture, that it comes from the body itself and makes its way into the spirit and it does not seem ordinary. So I smiled when they spoke because they seemed to know something that was true about the light and grace that came at that time and for once I liked how eager and sure they were.

The Testament of Mary revisits a number of events in Christ’s life, seen through the eyes of that unconventional version of Mary — the marriage at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. In all of them, Mary’s main interest is an attempt to get Jesus away from his preaching and so-called miracles and back to a simple, safe life in Nazareth.

As a literary exercise, that approach to Mary had enough curiosity value to make the 75 minutes it took to read the book worthwhile. I felt throughout that the stage version would probably have been a better experience — a talented actress would use intonation and gesture to add depth to the text. Anyone who is interested in the project might want to consider the audio version of the book which is narrated by Meryl Streep, since I suspect it would capture at least part of that dramatic value.

I’ll admit that I would never have picked up The Testament of Mary if it had not been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. The two pieces of mental baggage I confessed to at the start of this review were augmented by a third: What could a literary jury have found in this book that caused them to rate it as one of the 13 best novels published this year?

After reading the book, I have no answer to that question. Toibin’s considerable literary skills are certainly apparent in the testament, but at best it is an unorthodox look at a story that has spawned countless other versions (and some very fine art). I can understand why it would provoke outrage in some but that hardly seems to warrant a prize-listing. In the final analysis, I am left scratching my head wondering just whom the author thought his audience would be.

42 Responses to “The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín”

  1. Michael Says:

    I am a lapsed catholic so I approached the text as a piece of literature/fiction and it was a fast read but at the same time, insightful and gives pause for reflection.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      “Pause for reflection” aptly captures the positive side of the book: What would Mary have been like if she had been less saintly and more ordinarily human? I suspect that’s why the stage version has somewhat more appeal to me — I’d be interested in seeing how a professional interpreted and portrayed that character.

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      • Michael Says:

        To the best of my limited Sunday school knowledge, I don’t think Mary was a saint in the canonical sense? She was revered more as the mother of Jesus.

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        We Presbyterians weren’t much into saints, so I might be using the term inappropriately, although I certainly know her as Saint Mary as well as the Mother of the Son of God. I meant it more in the character sense than a canonical description.

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  2. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    maybe the pure uniqueness of this book made it prize-worthy in the judges’ minds. As a recovering Catholic ( you never get over it ), I find this strangely appealing.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was raised a Presbyterian and Mary’s role in that faith is much less than it is in the Catholic church — so I can see where Toibin’s idea of her might have more of an impact for those raised as Catholics.

      As for the judges, I think they overlooked far more ambitious (and successful) forays into uniqueness. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life would be one good example.

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      • Michael Says:

        I preferred the OTHER Life After Life. I found Kate’s one a tad gimmicky – feels like those Choose-Your-Adventure books

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  3. David Says:

    I read this one last year when it came out, and wasn’t a fan. Beautifully wrought prose as I’d expect from Toibin, but I really didn’t get on with his interpretation, not so much of Mary which I found vaguely interesting, but of Jesus who he paints as very cold and aloof. I am not in any way religious (and I quite enjoy being blasphemous – I reckon Jesus must’ve been a pain in the bum as a kid with all his ‘wist ye not I must be about my father’s business’ backchat) but I just found this controversial for the sake of it rather than insightful. But I suspect Catholics or people with a much better knowledge of the Gospels will get much more out of it and perhaps be challenged by its ideas, whereas just reading it as a piece of fiction I wasn’t hugely impressed. Certainly I can think of other books I’d have preferred to see on the longlist (Jonathan Buckley’s ‘Nostalgia’ and Simon Van Booy’s ‘The Illusion of Separateness’ for instance).

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for those thoughts, which I share. I’d say the comments so far are pointing towards an answer to my question of whom Toibin thought would be his audience. Lapsed/recovering Catholics may well find much more in the book than I did.

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  4. Kerry Says:

    I shared much of your reaction. Hoping when i picked it up for something as meaty and truly subversive as Crace’s Quarantine, I was disappointed. But, like you, I was brought up in a Calvinist community that, perhaps unlike yours, all but taught that Catholics were idolaters for revering and praying to Mary. In other words, fiction portraying her as merely human does not undermine either my atheism or the Calvinism I was brought up in.

    But Toibin’s stylish yet underwhelming effort does emphasize for me Crace’s brilliance, so I am rooting for The Harvest despite not yet having read it.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      As a novella, with the restricted ambition that I think that implies, this book is quite successful — as a reason for “pause for reflection”. I do expect more from a Booker longlisted book, however much I might admire the author. And I am giving nothing away when I say in advance of my review that I think Harvest by contrast is a very legitimate contender.

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  5. anokatony Says:

    Underwhelming seems to capture my reaction to Testament.

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  6. Sharkell Says:

    I started this the night before last and put it down again, thinking I would return it to the library unread. Your review and the other comments above make me feel like I did the right thing, even if it is short.

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  7. leroyhunter Says:

    There seems to have been a spate of these interpretations recently – I think of Pullman’s “Scoundrel” as well. I agree with Kerry that Quarantine is a fine book, but I think I will look elsewhere when the time comes for my first Toibin.

    Love the idea of a “recovering” Catholic, by the way.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Definitely start somewhere else — I am a little surprised you haven’t read any so far. You could start almost anywhere (his story collections are first rate) although I’d save The Master — his novel based on Henry James — for later on since it quite different from his other works.

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  8. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’m just about to read this, Kevin, so I will come back here to read your thoughts when I’ve finished it:)

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  9. The Longest Chapter Says:

    I agree with/share the same question: “What could a literary jury have found in this book that caused them to rate it as one of the 13 best novels published this year?” If it lands in the shortlist, then I’ll really be confused.

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  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m with Kerry that it doesn’t sound nearly as subversive as Quarantine. A shame, as I love Toibin and this was the only one I was looking forward to, but simply making Mary ordinary isn’t that intrinsically interesting. She’s only an interesting figure because of her links to the divine (which I don’t believe in, but the point still holds).

    I’d be more interested if he was the son of god in the text, and yet she still had the human emotions of a mother to contend with.

    There’s an interesting point on its inclusion in the Booker, which is that it’s not eligible. It’s way below the minimum page count, significantly so and as such shouldn’t be on the list. I think they made an exception for Toibin, as they did previously for McEwan and for Barnes (but both for books that were I understand much longer even so than this). I’m not sure the prize should be making those kind of exceptions though.

    I can see how this would work much better as a one person show. That said, given the focus on Mary would put off the non-religious and the depiction of her is profoundly blasphemous for Catholics and pretty iffy for Protestants I’m not surprised it failed to get a huge audience.

    Overall it sounds a bit of a curio piece, perhaps best left in its original stage context and as you say as an audiobook.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I did not know the Booker had an actual page count restriction. And I should note in the hardcover these are very small pages, with quite large type. A cheaply-produced mass market version would probably come in at about 40 pages. It certainly read quicker than either On Chesil Beach or The Sense of an Ending — and was not nearly as satisfying as either.

      And of course Booker juries tend to get to do what they want — Alice Munro made the list some years aback because that year’s jury decided the stories in the collection were linked enough that it could be called a novel.

      “Curio piece” is a good description and I suspect that was what Toibin intended (I might be being a bit generous with that, but I want to keep liking the guy). The premise that Mary viewed her son as just another boy, with some disturbing thoughts and leadership tendencies, is worth a bit of exploration. That’s why I continue to feel that a stage treatment, where a good actress to can add several layers of additional interpretation, probably serves his purpose better than this slim volume.

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      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I was misremembering, it’s not a strict page count, rather it’s that it has to be a “full-length novel”. However you define that though, I can’t see a forty page work passing that test. It’s a short story, perhaps a novella, but not a full-length novel.

        I don’t really see the point of stretching the limits of eligibility. All prizes are to an extent arbitrary, but if we play games with what’s eligible what’s the point of the prize?

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I tend to be more willing to let juries have their way — I’d say McEwan, Barnes (who won it) and Munro were all worth “bending” the rules for, if that was what it took. Although, in all three cases, I do think it did not require much stretching of the idea of “full-length novel” to include them.

        Actually when you look at the pile of submitted copies (here’s a link — I’d say Toibin is one of the two thin ones at the model’s mid-upper-arm level in the closer pile), you can sort of understand why a jury included a shorter book. Maybe also to excuse themselves for an 840 pager (The Luminaries) and an 1,100 page one (The Kills).

        Toibin is an excellent short story writer (including some longish ones) and I’d say this is more an extended story than it is a full-length novel. Indeed, I could easily see that he might have started the project as almost a collaboration with an actress friend who wanted a monologue based on this premise — it has that kind of feel to it. And when that went over all right at the Dublin Festival (and attracted American interest), his book publisher saying “well let’s turn it into a sellable piece of fiction”. That is all idle speculation, of course, but as you can see from the comments a good number of us Toibin fans stepped up to the cash register.

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  11. Lawrence Garcia Says:

    The novel read as willfully contrarian to me; and while I can appreciate that, I don’t think the execution was there. It was a different perspective–a curiosity, but no more. I haven’t read all of the long listed novels yet, but I hope this doesn’t make the shortlist.

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  12. kimbofo Says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no interest in reading this book despite my Irish literature obsession. I’m not a religious person (I was not raised in any faith) but am intrigued by Catholicism as a form of “theatre”. I expect Toibin wrote the book for himself; I believe he describes himself as a “collapsed Catholic” ( he’s written a non-fiction book/travelogue about the religion across Europe, but I can’t recall its name), so perhaps this is him just trying to work something out of his system?

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have not done any web research, but have somewhat similar speculative thoughts about how this project came to be. I’ve presumed Toibin was a “collapsed” Catholic — in my speculation, it all starts with an actress friend of similar persuasion casually (or not so casually) saying she would love to do a monologue show featuring Mary as an ordinary, somewhat grumpy person who doesn’t accept the whole Son of God premise. That strikes a responsive chord with Toibin (it isn’t as though religion has not showed up in his work before) and they begin discussions of just what it would look/sound like. I have hung around the theatre a little bit in my time and that is often how these ideas that turn into productions get started — it is a collaborative art from start to finish that requires (and rewards) different types of talents to work together to achieve the final production.

      That hypothesis is a little more elaborate than yours, but certainly along the same lines — I could maybe describe it as the “-theatre of anti-Catholicism”? (🙂 )

      When this volume first showed up last fall, that was pretty much my assumption about it and, like you, I was not much interested in buying it, despite my general like for Toibin. As mentioned in the review and later comments, it was my curiosity over the Booker jury’s decision to include it on the longlist that finally caused me to read it. And, as already stated several times, that curiosity still is not satisfied.

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  13. AliceLynn Says:

    This is on my list of books to read. As well as being very keen on Toibin’s writing, I am interested to see if there is any hint by the author that Jesus had a personality disorder or perhaps “inclination towards” grandiosity, as in mood disorder. Probably many successful founders of new religions did, and some clinical thinking has also suggested a mild form of schizophrenia.

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  14. caoimheob Says:

    I keep intending to read it as Toibin is from near where I live in Ireland. But every time I go to buy it something stops me, I think I feel like I SHOULD read it it but I don’t really WANT to read it. I think your review and other people’s comments have convinced me that I would be better spending my time reading something else that interests me more.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would not recommend starting with this one. If you have concerns about whether you will like him, consider starting with a short story collection — I thought Mothers and Sons was particularly good although if you check the file of my reviews you will find other good examples.

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      • caoimheob Says:

        I read Brooklyn a while ago. I liked it but I wasn’t bowled over by it by any means so I think I’ll leave THE testament of Mary. I might check out his short stories though thanks!

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      • caoimheob Says:

        I actually ended up reading it as I was doing a review for the local newspaper! I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected, maybe because I had such low expectations.

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  15. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’m late to the party, and I’m out on a limb, but here’s my review: http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/10/23/the-testament-of-mary-by-colm-toibin/

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