The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

‘Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Testament of MaryThis short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be, perhaps, the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

As Jesus’ followers encourage her to embellish her story to tie in with the legend they are beginning to create, Mary feels that she must tell, even if only once, the true story of her involvement in these momentous events. We see her cynicism and doubt about the miracles attributed to her son; her dislike, contempt even, for those followers who seem intent on feeding his ego, who seem to be provoking his martyrdom to serve their own ends. And most of all we come to understand and almost to share her guilt and fear.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity.  Highly recommended.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Update to original review –  may contain mild spoilers

Since I first posted this review on Amazon US in October 2012, I have become very aware from other reviews that many Christians have found this book offensive, though being honest it seems often to be people who haven’t read it who find it so.  From my perspective, there is no denial of Christ being the Son of God in the book. Indeed, Tóibín tells the tale in such a way that there is no doubt that Christ performed miracles, though Mary may question their worth. The story of Lazarus is one of the most haunting parts of the book.

This is the story of an old and lonely woman, who has lost her son in the most horrific way, living with grief and pain and, not unnaturally, doubt as to whether it was worth it. The guilt Mary feels is the creation of her own mind – at no point did I feel that Tóibín was implying that her guilt was well-founded. How many mothers feel undeserved guilt when their children suffer? Why would Mary be different?

As I said in the original review, this is a very human story that moved me deeply and remains fresh and sharp in my mind six months later. I can only encourage people to read it with an open mind. If it is read as fiction, not fact, then it is a very beautiful piece of writing and a master-class in story-telling.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

23 thoughts on “The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

  1. One of the difficulties I find with reviewing books like this is that any literary conversation gets lost in the white noise of other issues. I suppose it’s to be expected, but it’s still disappointing. For myself, I didn’t find much to enjoy here—apart from the stunning writing, that is. It’s not that anything was offensive. As you mention, Tóibín handled the religious issues with deft care. I just wasn’t sold on the complete reinvention of an established story (I have similar issues with Robin Hood and the Grimm Tales).

    What I found terribly enlightening, though, was this author interview pointed out to me by a friend: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/podcast/?podcastID=1035. Not only did I feel like a Philistine after listening to such an erudite and brilliant man, but I was given a real appreciation for what inspired Tóibín to write this novella in the first place.

    An excellent review, by the way. Even if my own opinion is quite different, I can’t argue at all with your closing line.

    • I think it sometimes depends on what the reader brings to the story. I’m neither religious nor a miltant atheist, so didn’t really have any particular preconceptions about Mary and read this purely as fiction. One of the reasons I like reviewing in both Britain and the US is the difference in reactions, which often takes me by surprise. Here (UK), most people who reviewed it did so as fiction, whereas in the US it’s been reviewed much more harshly by many people as some kind of attack on religion.

      But yes, I also get steamed up when someone messes with something I love – like giving Sherlock Holmes a female assistant, for example. Or publishing Grimms with modern langauge and no illustrations;-)

      Thank you for the link – I listened to some of it this afternoon while doing other things, but am looking forward to listening to it properly tonight. I was interested to hear him mention Coetzee since I’m currently reading his new one, The Childhood of Jesus. And I was also delighted that he chose to read the sections about Lazarus since that was one of the bits of the book that stood out most for me.

  2. If one believes, as I do, that there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth; and if one believes, as I do, that this man came to be seen as divine by a great many people; then one might read The Testament of Mary as a piece of fiction that imagines how that all might have happened in the world; and more particularly, how it could have felt to be the mother of this man — regardless of whether Jesus was man and God, or simply a man some saw (and see) as God. The humanity of the story is the same, including from a mother’s perspective:

    Mary suffered. Like all mothers suffer, only in spades.

    • Hallo! As a non-believer I’m always a bit reluctant to say anything that might be seen as offensive (though sometimes offence seems to be taken however much one tries to avoid it). But I feel that this book made Mary a much more real figure to me than the usual picture we get and I find it hard to understand why that would be a bad thing. Yes, she doubted the worth of her son’s path – what kind of mother wouldn’t, given the outcome?

      I noticed that, as they often do, they’ve changed the cover art for the US version, using a traditional picture of Mary, and I wonder how much that has added fuel to the fire. I love the UK cover and wonder if perhaps it makes it easier to approach this as a literary work? Not that I’d ever judge a book by its cover, of course!! 😉

    • If you get time, you might want to listen to the podcast Indiscriminate Critic gave the link to (above). It’s about an hour long and includes Toibin reading parts of the book, mainly the Lazarus stuff, and a Q&A session. I found it very interesting.

      One of the shortest books I’ve reviewed and yet one that has provoked most reaction, here and on Amazon. Whatever else it does, it certainly shows the power of the written word to arouse strong emotions.

    • I know – and since I haven’t read the winner I don’t know how much he’s been robbed. They were obviously looking for something with a quirk from the shortlist though. I’ll read The Luminaries at some point before disparaging it, but I’m certain the Ozeki will have sunk without trace in a few years, while people will be reading Testament as a classic.

  3. Interesting review, FEF. How much would say Mr. Tóibín “embellished” what was going on in Mary’s mind?

    (Forgot to say, Tommy and Tuppence are beautiful! 😆 Give them each a pat from me!)

    • I think Toibin would freely admit to having completely embellished Mary’s viewpoint. In fact, I think I heard him say that one of his motivations for writing the book was that we never got to know Mary’s view. His is one interpretation, and it seemed to me a very possible one, and not at all a denial of the Christ story. While being lambasted for my review on Amazon US, I remember remarking that I wish it had been possible for the book to be about another mother and another son so that people could read it more open-mindedly as fiction. I still wish that.

      (Glad you noticed! I will! 😀 )

      • Yes, definitely. There is that one story in the Bible when Mary and Jesus’ brothers come to take him home. Sort of indicating they think he’s a bit insane.

        You were lambasted? That is super cool! Don’t you think? It can be so fun to make people angry. 🙂 (Personally, the story would probably be more powerful to me because it is Jesus, but can’t say for sure since I’ve never read the book.)

        And I think the pink nose deserves a kiss!

        • I expect you’ll be horrified by this, but I’ve never actually read the Bible…

          I wasn’t lambasted quite as badly over this book as over Umberto Eco’s – apparently I must be anti-Semitic if I think that one’s bad! I love Americans… 😉 (I don’t think I’d recommend this one to you – many Christians really seemed to feel it was blasphemous…never properly understood why myself, but there it is…)

          So do I! And so does he!

          • No, not horrified. Very surprised, though! I would warrant that FEF’s read every notable book written. Would it be too forward to suggest it to your TBR?

            Did they pick on you very badly? Makes me cranky. (The professor is the only good American.)

            Well, I suppose it really depends on what the book says. 🙂 As you may know, the professor is a Christian hiself. Did you ever see the Passion movie?

            • By no means – the Professor thinks I’m much more widely read than I actually am. Hmm..it’s been on my TBR a few times over the years but I doubt if I’ll ever read it, to be honest. But who knows? Maybe one day…

              Oh, I enjoyed the fights! And as many Americans jumped in to defend me as attacked me – maybe more. Actually I love reviewing in America for that very reason – you get much better debates on reviews than over here, and mostly fairly good-humoured. (Good-humored, I suppose 😉 )

              Well, I didn’t see it as blasphemous personally, but then I read it as fiction. Yes, I’d gathered that. No, haven’t seen it – didn’t it rile a lot of people too?

            • Maybe! The professor doesn’t fare well in large novels. That’s why I boast about reading Les Miz and Ben-Hur! I’ve been tempted to try War and Peace.

              It sounds fun. You should start another battle ground!

              I think so, yes. If you recall the man you thought was yummy, but scary when he smiled–he played Christ. I’ve never seen it. Too brutal!

            • I’ve never read either Les Miz or Ben-Hur. I have however read W&P – two months it took me. I could see what all the fuss was about but TBH I found the bulk of it fairly dull, especially the Peace bit – I’m not an enthusiast for the Russians at all, though it might be the translations that make them such hard work.

              I might…

              For some reason, I thought it was a Clooney film…it never appealed much though.

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