Cannonball Read V: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín
I’m a sucker for retelling history, especially when it comes to biblical material. (That’s what I get for going to Sunday School every week for 18 years.) Novels like The Dovekeepers, The Red Tent, and Unholy Night are pretty much right in my wheelhouse. Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary, in which a post-crucifixion Mary (as in, Mary, Mother of God) meditates on her life and her son’s death, somehow magically ended up at the top of my library pile—no big surprise.
Mary is older and long-removed from the events of Jerusalem, living in Ephesus and visited daily by a pair of Jesus’ disciples attempting to write an account of his life—one can assume, in the end, a gospel. They feed her, house her, and try to tease from her the obscure details of her son’s life. Mary hopes they can see how completely she abhors them. She flashes back to the days that she feels defined her—her days as a mother and a wife to a younger Jesus—and the months leading up to his inevitable death. She treasures the memories of a young, unfettered son, who needed her warmth and comfort. She describes how, as he grows and moves from Nazareth to Jerusalem and returns sporadically, she begins to see a character that isn’t her son—one who speaks in stilted, grandiose phrases and strange accents, and wears clothing unrecognizable to her. Mary is skeptical of his mindless flock of followers and hangers-on, openly loathes his disciples, and is frustrated and exhausted at the spectacle and “miracles” that constantly follow her son. To wit—Jesus raises Lazarus, but Lazarus is merely a shell of his former self, who doesn’t recognize friend or family, and frightens neighbors and visitors. As Jesus moves toward crucifixion, Mary poignantly recounts the wedding at Cana (where Jesus famously turns water into wine). As she quietly begs her son to return home, away from the sycophants who follow his “high flown talk” and the priests who wait for his downfall, he loudly rebukes her and instead performs—in her opinion—cheap party tricks for the mobbing wedding guests.
Toíbín’s Mary is a woman of overwhelming conviction—but a conviction that her son died needlessly at the hands of a population overwhelmed with blood lust, abandoned by his disciples, his followers, even his mother. She is deadened, exhausted from the pain that follows her, and longs for death, a welcome respite from her anger and sorrow. In the end, she determines that, despite her keepers’ constant reassurance that her son saved the world, a savior does not outweigh her grief as a mother: “…I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Toíbín himself writes in sparse, unadorned prose, thick with dust and fatigue and the numbness that follows a parent losing a child. His gift for reflection between the lives of his subjects is so quietly nuanced, it’s easily missed on the first go-around. Luckily, The Testament of Mary is a [relatively] quick read, and one has time to go back and pull apart the stories of Jesus’ life that once seemed joyous and familiar, but are now tinged with bitterness and resentment.
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in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)
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