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.
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.