The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

I picked up The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín on a whim.  Having been in a bit of a reading funk I was at the public library looking for something that might jolt me out of said funk.  A short adult literary novel with religious themes seemed like a good place to start:

In the ancient town of Ephesus, Mary lives alone, years after her son’s crucifixion. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospel—her keepers, who provide her with food and shelter and visit her regularly. She does not agree that her son is the Son of God; nor that his death was “worth it;” nor that the “group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye,” were holy disciples. Mary judges herself ruthlessly (she did not stay at the foot of the Cross until her son died—she fled, to save herself), and is equally harsh on her judgement of others. This woman who we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone. Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination and language is a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.

I don’t what to make of this book. It never really grabbed me and I am not sure I would have finished it had it not been so short. It wasn’t the potential blasphemy (Mary is angry and bitter and portrays the followers of her son in a very negative light) but the lack of any direction or even context.

You are just dropped into Mary’s head post-crucifixion and then via flashbacks given a glimpse of the events leading up to that gruesome day. And then suddenly the book is over. Some of the passages are well done and the attempt to recreate what it might feel to be in Mary’s place during these events is a challenge and fascinating. But for me, Mary felt isolated from context or place.

Ron Charles review in the Washington Post gets at some of what I was frustrated with and perhaps my philosophical angst:

But even while attending to the alleged distortions of the Gospels, Toibin makes little effort to establish any kind of historical accuracy himself. Few of these scenes is graced with enough description to give us a full picture of the place or the time. His Mary rarely sounds like a poor 1st-century woman in the Roman Empire. She speaks in the lovely, super-literary phrases of a feminist who confidently rejects faith in Yahweh (or her son) in favor of a very hip paganism that the modern literati can sanction.

There’s a powerful, devastating story here about a mother angry at her son’s disregard for his own safety and even more disgusted at his friends’ determination to pretend that their ideals are more important than his life. Regardless of its religious drapery, her agony has a universal relevance. After all, brash young men are snuffed out and then glorified in propaganda during every generation’s wars. Good mothers know they’re expected to sanction that celebration. But some Christians may justifiably feel assailed by this book’s resounding claim that the central event of their faith was, in Mary words, “not worth it.”

As a vignette meditating on a suffering mother there are some interesting sections but the book as a whole left me cold. Perhaps my faith played a role but I would like to think I could recognize a well done work even if I disagree with its religious implications.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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