The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

imageReviewed by Vincent Hanley

This is a very slim apochraphal epistle-type novella from Colm Toibin. It is told from Mary’s perspective and, apart from Toibin, the only other Irish authors capable of such a consummate tour de force would, in my opinion, be Emma O’Donoghue, Edna O’Brien or even Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy herself.

The story begins with Mary under a kind of house arrest similar to a latter day Aung San Suu Kyi. She is catered for, spied on and continually interviewed and interrogated by unnamed men who seek to control her story. These men are responsible for spreading the message of her dead son, the turbulent priest, with his rag-tag group of misfit followers. Traditionally, of course, we associate this role with St. John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple and St. Paul, the convert who became the chief propagandist of the new religion. Here however, these ominous, shadowy men are faceless and nameless.

The great irony of Toibin’s narrative is that Mary, now living out her final days in Ephesus, is not a Christian and her devotion is to the Pagan goddess Artemis, goddess of fertility and bounty, childbirth and virginity and protector of young girls!

In my view Toibin displays an amazing insight into the psyche of motherhood in this revisionist epistle. Obviously as an Irishman he is very well placed to give us his revealing insights! Most of us familiar with the story of Mary and Church teaching focus largely on the Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception. This narrative ignores these momentous events and rather concentrates on three events in the life of her son; the story of Lazarus, the Wedding at Cana and, of course the very graphically described Crucifixion.

Mary treats her pregnancy as normal, everyday, she cherishes in her final days the memory of those blessed days. However, the men, her guardians, who have spirited her away to Ephesus, have a very different perspective, and our religion, our competing stories, reflect a situation where Mary’s pregnancy is one of a kind, otherworldly, out of the ordinary. Toibin’s ‘epistle’ gives us a much needed feminist outlook on those momentous events in those hysterical times as the Good News is managed and propagated from small town Galilee to a worldwide male dominated audience.

Mary’s ‘testament’ is sparse and succinct, uttered to her scribe – Toibin – in sotto voce until her guardians ask her to embellish her story and then her voice is more shrill and strident. Her motive seems to be to set the record straight – her account acts as memoir, witness statement extraordinaire, and it has the ring of truth to it – the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It moves between night and day, fact and dream and while some memories are graphic and detailed like her version of the Crucifixion or the aftermath of Lazarus’ coming forth, other major grey areas are skimmed over and there is a scarcity of detail, notably of course when dealing with the Resurrection – much to the annoyance and exasperation of her guardians.

These are examples of the subtleties of Toibin’s touch – he never pushes the bounds of our credulity, he doesn’t offend sensitive sensibilities in this area. However, there is evidence aplenty of subtle twenty first century nuances – finally a woman speaks!

Mary, as depicted by the author, is extremely suspicious of those with learning and those who can write. However, she correctly recognises and senses the power of the written word and she is lucky to have found a modern medium for her message in Colm Toibin in this one chapter and no verses gem of a read.

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