Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Colm Tóibín – The Testament of Mary: A Novel [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1451688385″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41gPYzvQlFL.jpg” width=”223″ alt=”Colm Tóibín” ]Still, I’m Rooting for Redemption

A Feature Review of

The Testament of Mary: A Novel.
Colm Tóibín

Hardback: Scribner, 2012.
Buy now:  [ [easyazon-link asin=”1451688385″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ] [ [easyazon-link asin=”B007EDOTPS” locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]
Reviewed by Cynthia Wallace.
***This review originally appeared on the reviewer’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.
I picked up Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary a few weeks ago and read it all in one go on a Saturday morning. It’s a fairly short book, fewer than 100 pages, but its power is perhaps disproportionate to its length. I’m still thinking about it.
The book’s premise is fairly simple: an aging Mary, the mother of Jesus, gives a haunting first-person account of her life, an account that insists on honesty about her doubts, her fears, even her visceral distaste for her son’s followers. Several of these followers act as shadowy figures throughout her narration, not only in the days leading up to the crucifixion but also in the present, as they hover around her life (ostensibly to protect her) and stubbornly record whitewashed versions of the stories she tells them for the Gospels that will eventually enter into our canon.

This is a bitter Mary: she has lost her only son. She has lost her dear husband Joseph. She has lost her community, her safety. She has lost the holiness and peace she felt, in earlier decades, celebrating the Sabbath (the passages in which she reminisces about these days of rest are among the book’s most beautiful).


Mary does not outright reject the miracles she hears of and witnesses–perhaps because she lives in an age of enchanted imaginations. But the miracles are not unambiguously good: she sees Lazarus, raised from the dead, as a frail and devastated shadow of his former self. As for miracles less tinged with pain, Mary does not seem to outright believe, either. Her concern, in all these events, is of the spectacle her son is making of himself. Her concern is for his safety as a troublemaker in a politically volatile time.

This is her concern at the terrible crucifixion, as well–her son’s safety and, when a rescue ultimately proves impossible, her own safety. The whole ordeal is overshadowed by a sense of conspiracy, of uncertainty over who is trustworthy, who is involved in the plot to kill Jesus and those involved with him. By Mary’s shame-filled account, she runs away from the crucifixion with two companions who are also at risk, even going so far as to terrorize families to procure food and donkeys during their panicked flight.

The resurrection, per Mary’s view, seems to be wishful thinking on the part of demoralized followers: they derive it, in part, from an uncanny dream she and another woman share and report. Jesus’s heavenly origins, likewise, are later extrapolated from Mary’s descriptions of her sense of mystery and holiness in the early days of her pregnancy, a sense that she suspects many women feel. Those around her are insistent on taking the events of her life, of her son’s life, and recasting them in light of redemption, in light of divinity. Mary does not see redemption: she sees foolishness and pain.
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