Although the names of the female narrator and her son’s never appear in the actual text of this finely written novella, anyone with even a passing awareness of the New Testament will immediately recognize who the story is about. The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín superb work of fiction published in 2012, is exactly what the title suggests: a testimony and witness of the story from the gospels, only from her point of view, and that of a skeptic no less. Guarded and controlled by a couple of her son’s followers and living in exile in Ephesus, Mary initially talks about her daily routine and her utter isolation. She recounts a visit to the temple of Artemis and the superficial connection she has to only one other person, a neighbor named Farina. The writing is resolute and resigned at the same time, and takes on beautiful and effortless poetic notes that fill the prose with a musicality which in turn gives it almost a sacral and divine quality.
The Mary of this story, though, is not the one we have seen in countless paintings and sculptures, nor is she the figure that orators, preachers, and priests have told us about. This Mary is profoundly human. The novella truly bursts to life when the narrator begins to tell us about her son and their relationship. Her role as a loving mother is never more obvious than when she thinks back to her favorite days when her son was just a boy and the small family would enjoy the Sabbath together in quiet reverence and obedience. These moments of silence are then juxtaposed with the chaos that surrounded her adult son wherever he went. We get the picture of someone who made claims about his heritage and about his abilities, around whom a collection of undesirables and misfits followed with every step taken. The largest portion of the story is taken up by the crucifixion and death of the young man. A story we know very well and have seen depicted in harrowing details by the likes of Mel Gibson. But the point of view of the mother has been missing, and Tóibín is able to provide an account of the female perspective that rings so truthful and respectful that it’s as if we are reading of the event for the first time.
What could trouble the more devout readers of this story and could be interpreted as blasphemy is that Mary does not believe her son to be the son of god. Her connection to the man is a maternal one only, not a spiritual one. She also is never a witness to any of the miracles that he is said to perform, and so a dubious outlook is always front and center. Her story, according to our narrator, has also been greatly exaggerated and canonized, against her will. She is a powerless woman who uses her pen to obtain control over her own tale. Reminiscent of Michel Faber’s The Fire Gospel, this tale sheds a different light on a work that most of the time is deemed untouchable and incorruptible, and yet so much could be done with the source material, as evidenced in these works. This was a splendid work by an author I had not read before, but can see why he has been praised so much and why his works have been showered with accolades and prizes.