The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín read by Meryl Streep

Flesh and blood and bone…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

testament streepWhen it comes to dramatic interpretations of books, every reader is his/her own director. We know how the book sounded in our head, how the characters looked, behaved, spoke. How often do we feel a little disappointed in the ‘film of the book’ – not because it is in any way unfaithful to the story, but simply because it’s not quite as we envisaged it? The same problem of reader-as-director applies to audiobooks. Sometimes the narrator’s voice fits perfectly with the voice in our head – Derek Jacobi as Watson narrating Holmes, for instance, Joan Hickson reading Agatha Christie, or Jonathan Cecil as the perfect narrator of Jeeves and Wooster…for this reader/director anyway.

The Testament of Mary is the ideal book for audio, since it is the first-person narration of Mary’s story, and was originally written as a performance piece before being turned into a book. I have reviewed the book already (click to see the review) and found it a harrowing novel, full of guilt and fear. I was thrilled to hear that Meryl Streep had recorded it, given my admiration of her talent as an actor and my love of her voice. And I’d like to say straight off that hers is a wonderful performance, emotional, well-paced and with Mary’s character fully realised. But…but…the emotions that Streep has given us are primarily those of sorrow, loss and regret and while that is a perfectly valid reading of the book, it doesn’t quite chime with my own directorial interpretation. The anger and bitterness, the fear and guilt were all a little muted – subsumed by the sorrow. This is a book that made me cry for Mary, indeed, but it also made my blood boil, horrified me and made me feel Mary’s fear.

meryl streep

Up to the point of the Lazarus story, Streep had me totally with her. This was perhaps the part of the book that affected me most. The vision that Tóibín gives us of the strangeness and pain of Lazarus following his return to life churned my emotions, and Streep caught this aspect perfectly. But at the description of the crucifixion itself, I felt that the horror didn’t come through – this is a mother watching her son having nails driven through his hands and suffering a cruel and lingering death. Mary explains why she did nothing, but that doesn’t mean that she remained dispassionate, and I’m afraid Streep’s reading seemed strangely passionless for the most part, almost resigned.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Since the story is being told by an old Mary long after the event, I could see the validity of Streep’s reading – this is a story Mary has gone over in her head many times and the horror will no longer be fresh for her. But it is for us – and I felt there should have been more of an emotional peak. The narration didn’t move me to anything like the extent of my own internal reading of the book – I didn’t find I was sharing Mary’s emotions, I didn’t feel the pain and the guilt to the same degree, and the fear just didn’t seem to be there.

Overall, I may have felt quite differently about this reading had I never read the book, and I would certainly recommend it highly to anyone who prefers audio to print. It is one interpretation, certainly at least as valid as my own, and Streep’s performance is strong and beautifully controlled. But it didn’t match the expectations of my interior director and therefore didn’t have quite the impact I was anticipating. With luck, this may become the kind of book that many actors will want to tackle and we may get a range of audio interpretations in time. If so, though I personally will be hoping for a more overtly emotional performance, Streep has set a very high standard and I’m sure this version will remain one of the best.

Amazon UK Link                                     Audible UK Link
Amazon US link                                      Audible US Link

33 thoughts on “The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín read by Meryl Streep

  1. FictionFan – What a thoughtful and well-written review. I think it’s quite challenging narrating books, especially if you are not the author. It’s hard to really convey the author’s intent. And of course, there is your well-made point that readers do form mental structures of books and characters in them. So even if the narrator communicates exactly the nuances the author had in mind, that may not be how the reader interprets the story. I’m glad that overall you felt this was well done.

    • Thank you, Margot! Because I tend to listen to books that I’ve already read, I find I look on them very much as performance rather than narration. It’s like watching a play done by several different directors – you won’t agree with them all, but each might add something to how you see the play.

  2. It’s a very good point. I remember Golem didn’t look at all how I pictured him. (This could be a similar problem the PL is faced with. But you are familiar with character voices.)

    It seems Mr. Tóibín writes a powerful tale. I must needs go check out the book review. Don’t remember this one…

  3. Funnily enough, I reread this last week, and I agree with you that the over-riding feeling I get from the book is one of anger. The description of the Crucifixion is truly horrible, even told many years later, and I think I would be disappointed if this didn’t come over. Good timing of the release – I’m sure many “churchy folk” will get this for Christmas.

    • It didn’t come over for me as much as I hoped, but again every listener will react differently. I was kind of wishing that Fiona Shaw had done the audio, since she did the play on Broadway – though I believe to mixed reviews.

    • I don’t know if ‘churchy folk’ will like this book. Jesus and the apostles do not come out of this story smelling of roses. Jesus comes across as arrogant while the apostles are bullies.

      • I think I depends on the “churchy folk”! When the book first came out , I leant it to quite a few of the clergy in the diocese and they were split about fifty/fifty between those who loved or hated it.

        • It’s possible they may like the Streep version more than the book, because of what I felt was the downplaying of the anger and bitterness. Certainly a book that generates strong reactions though.

  4. No book is ever complete until it has a reader and the wonderful thing about reading is that every reader will bring that completion about in a slightly different (or totally different, given some discussions I’ve been party to!) manner. I have still to read this. I’m waiting for a day when I feel strong enough because I know it is going to be a harrowing experience. I think I’ll stick with the print version. The problem with audio is that if there is a passage that is just too much you can’t read it with your fingers over your eyes.

    • I certainly found it a harrowing read, and deeply moving. I tend to forget books very quickly after reading them, but this one has stuck with me vividly since I read it well over a year ago now. I think it’s one that I will re-read often. I’d definitely recommend the print version first, but this is a great audio version for anyone who prefers that format for whatever reason. (You could always stick your fingers in your ears at the harrowing bits… 😉 )

  5. Oh no no no – I can’t (almost never) do audiobooks, so you have convinced me absolutely not to go this route. That’s what Colm Toibin does so well in his writing – such a tangled weave of emotions, not just this or that, but all sorts of contradictory feelings, some firm and fixed, others rushing and roiling. I might even have to put this back on the To Be RE Read list (sigh, it never ends. I think a very good pitch for ‘can I have some immortality please’ is for the ‘I need to get through my TBR list’ And the TBRR list for the specials which can only be enhanced by another read, they were so good!

    PS Have had to put Entry Island down for a bit. Its the Highland Clearances that got me all racked and churned up far more than the account of the investigated murder and BLUDD. Well, it would really, as the Highland Clearances happened, and though murders happen this is a novel, and this murder has happened to a fictional character whom (so far) no one has much of a good word for anyway!

    • I know you’re not an audio person, but I really see it in the same way as I see plays – a performance rather than a narration. I’d love to see several audio versions of this – the structure of the book makes it ideal for audio ‘dramatisation’. And this was a great performance but, like Branagh’s Hamlet, not the way I’d have directed it…

      I hope that means you’re enjoying Entry Island…well. perhaps enjoying is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. Another harrowing read (the historical bit) with images that will stay with me, I feel…

      • Yes I am enjoying EI so far – I laid down my historical book on Russia for a little try of this and have been ooked. I might have to go back to reading one of the science and healthcare books though to give me the strength to carry on with Highland Clearances so to speak.

    • I couldn’t agree more with LF: “That’s what Colm Toibin does so well in his writing – such a tangled weave of emotions, not just this or that, but all sorts of contradictory feelings, some firm and fixed, others rushing and roiling.” Spot on (as we don’t say enough over here).

      And it does sound to me (from reading the by-play here, not the audiotape) that FF is right that Streep missed what I got in “Mary’s” take on the crucifixion: Fear . . . and RAGE . . . and God DAMN you all for seeing it as anything but f***ing MURDER! . . . and for testing me in a way that exposed my own . . . humanity.

      • Yes, for me the anger and fear – and guilt – were the major emotions. But as I’ve just commented to Jilanne, I’d really like to hear some other opinions of Streep’s performance, since listening is as individual an experience as reading, and perhaps other people would hear emotions coming through that weren’t emphasised enough for me…

        Thanks for the tip-off about the audio, Matt. My damned-with-faint-praise review might suggest I didn’t enjoy it, but in fact I did, very much. I’m hoping other actors will record it in future so we can get the chance to do compare-and-contrasts…

  6. This is a great look at the strengths and weaknesses of audiobooks. I rarely listen to a recording unless it’s read by the author, probably because I feel like it’s the truest interpretation I can get…but I think I’d make an exception for Meryl Streep. 🙂

    My husband often listens to audiobooks on his commute, and I read a print copy so that we can discuss. It’s funny how different his opinions on the characters can be, due to how the reader portrays them versus how I read them in my head.

    • I rarely listen to a book that I haven’t already read – I used to but I found I didn’t take them in properly. So I tend to be listening to them as much for the performance as the story and love when great actors do a book I love.

      It’s the one thing I miss about not having a long commute any more – that’s when I mainly used to do my listening. But I regularly find myself arguing with the interpretation, even if it’s the author doing the reading…I tried to listen to Toni Morrison reading Beloved and ended up wanting to strangle her for going too slow! Must read the book sometime… 😉

      • I can’t do long commutes…I’m far too impatient! For me, audiobooks are for migraines or sleepless nights.

        And there’s a sign of a passionate reader — having strong opinions and impulsive-strangle-thoughts about your interpretation! (I haven’t read Beloved yet, either; every class I took with Morrison on the syllabus featured her other works, and I just haven’t gotten around to it.)

        • I use them for sleepless nights too – in fact, listening to Jeeves in the middle of the night is habit-forming, I’ve found. 😉

          I haven’t read any Morrison – except for my unsuccessful listen to Beloved. But though I couldn’t take the reading any more, the book seemed interesting. Did you like her other stuff?

          • It’s been a few years since I’ve read her, but I remember enjoying what I read (Sula about ten years ago, and The Bluest Eye a couple of years ago). She paints a picture of a world I would otherwise not have been able to know, and does it well, if I remember correctly.

            And late-night Jeeves sounds wonderful…although I probably wouldn’t get much sleep!

  7. As a mother, I cannot imagine ever getting over the horror of watching my child be killed (or anger with the killers), no matter how many years had passed. Streep is usually good as portraying layers of complex emotions, and I wonder if she just missed the opportunity to do so this time. Unless she was intent on portraying Mary as being resigned to “God’s will” and sorrow at having no choice but to accept this “fate.”

    • Yes, that’s what I felt when reading the book, and why I felt it was a very human account, and nothing to do with religion in reality. I would like to see some other reviews of Streep’s performance to see if other people felt the anger and fear were there. Like with print, each listener will get something different from the narration, and maybe other people would hear emotions that I didn’t…

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