Colm Tóibín’s strange, intense novella The Testament of Mary began life as a monologue for the Dublin Theatre festival called Testament before being published in 2012, and then had a brief but celebrated run on Broadway with Fiona Shaw in the title – and, indeed, only – role.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, it was pipped to the post by Eleanor Catton’s excellent The Luminaries but its presence on one of the strongest shortlists I’ve seen in years indicates just how good it is.
It tells the tale of a mother grieving her lost son, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that he was Jesus Christ and she the Virgin Mary.
Living in a small house in Ephesus, her life in danger after the crucifixion that in Tóibín’s account she flees, her son’s followers – “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers” – come to her with questions about his life.
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She is uneasy at the new religion springing up around the memory of her lost child, but finds comfort in reliving the experiences, tender and painful, that they shared.
Tóibín re-tells stories that anyone familiar with the New Testament will know well – the wedding at Cana, the resurrection of Lazarus – and imbues them with philosophic reflection.
Mary’s ambivalence at what her son became – “unthinking energy” she calls him – discomfits his disciples as it will some readers, along with the implication that the gospel writers arranged their narrative to fit the truth they had already decided upon. There are no “sharp simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all.”
The Testament of Mary brings a powerful humanity to the characters of the Gospels – it reminded me more of Michele Roberts’ The Wild Girl than it did Philip Pullman’s ambitious but uneven The Good Man and the Scoundrel Christ, which always felt more like an academic exercise than a work of fiction.
Despite its setting and characters, this is about motherhood as much as religion – Mary grieves her son long before the crucifixion, no longer recognizing her beloved boy in the man he has become. Eventually, she cannot even bear to say his name.
The Testament of Mary is a sharply intense work that benefits from its length, or lack of it. This is grief pared down to the bones.
I’m not surprised that the Broadway adaptation got its closing notices early – it’s a difficult book to read and with an actresses as powerful as Shaw in the role, it can’t have been comfortable viewing. She and Tóibín are bringing the production to London in 2014 – until then, there’s a vivid, unsettling novella that calls for a re-read.
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