Friday, March 29, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Written in the first person, the mother of Jesus Christ tells her own version of events chronicled in the New Testament. But a word of warning--this is probably not the Mary you are expecting. This Mary is a bitter, reclusive, cynical old woman who refuses to cooperate with the Gospel writers, who views the miracles and divinity attributed to her son with a strong dose of skepticism.

Though the Gospel writers tell her that the story they are writing "will change the world" and they provide her with food and shelter, Mary never lets them get close to her. When they say Jesus died "to redeem the world" she disagrees, to this mother, the sacrifice of her son's life was not worth it. As for the disciples who followed him, she sees them as a groups of misfits and malcontents speaking in riddles and Jesus himself as indulging in strange, high-flown talk about his work as "the son of God." It kind of made this reader think of a very conservative older woman whose son has become a peace, love, and flowers type hippie.

But if this Mary is hard on others, she is also hard on herself, she castigates herself for fleeing Golgotha, for not staying with her son until the very end. The flight impulse to save her own life got the better of her.

This was an interesting book to read, but, ultimately it left me cold. I'm neither offended by it nor a fan of it, ambivalent is probably the best word to describe my feelings. I know other readers have raved about this book, and some have been greatly offended by it, but it failed to move me. I really was eager to read it, I first saw this book when I was browsing in a bookshop and I was so intrigued by it I made a point of writing down the title and author since I didn't have enough money with me that day to buy it.

As a historical fiction author myself, I know deviating from the way the public perceives historical figures can be very risky and open the author up to attack and criticism, so I applaud Mr. Toibin from being brave enough to write against the grain about a figure people feel so strongly about as the Virgin Mary. His Mary is definitely not the loving, maternal, obedient, devoted, long suffering Mary we are accustomed to seeing in artistic representations. She is also not as devout as one might expect, in this novel she takes occasional comfort in the goddess Artemis.

Any readers expecting to see a close mother and son relationship in these pages will also be disappointed; at times Mary and her son seem almost like strangers. As the crown of thorns is being thrust onto Jesus' head and he makes his tortured progress to Golgotha, his mother is distracted by her sandals hurting her feet. Too human, or maybe even too honest, but it just seems a little jarring and out of place, then again people do think odd things at odd times.

Those expecting revelations about the virgin birth will also most likely be disappointed. The subject isn't really discussed, Mr. Toibin kind of pussyfoots around it, letting his Mary speak of the joy and fulfillment of pregnancy, of that special feeling of having a second heart beating inside her, but no divine revelations.

Overall, it's not a bad book. Those who take their faith very seriously and don't feel this is an area where they can comfortably welcome creative license may be offended by it, but otherwise I think it makes an interesting though lackluster read. It's a brave little book and I'm not sorry that I read it, only that I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

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