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Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Testament of Mary’

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Image result for the testament of mary

If this wasn’t on the reading list for one of my modules, I never would have read it. I know that isn’t a good start. I’m not at all interested in religion. If religion gets any reaction out of me, it’s a mild, fuzzy annoyance at the way it blinkers people and serves to undo progress. So a re-imagining of Christian civilisation’s most famous woman was certainly not on my bucket list.

The prose is hauntingly beautiful, Tóibín can have that. Sentences flow together, and it feels like you’re drinking pages rather than reading them. It’s very short, barely over a hundred pages, so I read it all in a couple of hours, which was a blessing (if you’ll pardon the pun). However, I am a sucker for plausible dialogue, I love dialogue, and this book is around 2% speech. Pages and pages float by, no dialogue. Sentences stretch out into paragraphs, into chapters, and still no dialogue. It’s told from a first person perspective, and it’s basically all Mary’s inner monologue, her inner life. This may be fascinating for some, but it wasn’t for me.

I’m fairly unfamiliar with Biblical stories, apart from the very basics. I know Jesus turned water into wine, pulled Lazarus back from the dead etc., but I don’t know enough about the Bible to be like “oh that’s him“, or “I recognise this part”. I do like how it reinvents Jesus, though. If someone is walking around calling himself the Son of God, you may have a sociopath on your hands. Think of all our more recent famous (or infamous) figures who have had notions of their own divinity. Charles Manson, Trump, Kanye West… the list goes on almost indefinitely. The so-called ‘God Complex’ is seen as one of the telltale signs of an extreme narcissist. So, is it surprising that Jesus may have been more than a bit insufferable, and most certainly entertained delusions of grandeur? Back then, the Romans were crucifying ‘Messiahs’ every week. I’m not even exaggerating, you can google it. So, this part isn’t surprising for me, but it may seem shocking or distasteful for any devout Christians reading this book. Think along the same lines of Life of Brian. It gives me visions of Father Ted and Dougal standing in front of the cinema shouting “down with this sort of thing!”

This novella also humanises Mary. Mary is idolised by millions of Christians around the world, but what do we actually know about her? Almost nothing. Did she even exist? I don’t actually know, and I don’t care enough to look into it. In Tóibín’s retelling, Mary does feel like a real person. She’s not perfect, and she’s not divine. She opts to save her own skin and escape after Jesus’ crucifixion rather than risking cutting him down, bathing and burying him. She knows the Romans are after her, and want to execute her too. She is disdainful of Jesus’ followers. She sees them as sad, lonely, desperate men with too many opinions who like to give orders and cling to meaning. What kind of people do you know, nowadays, who are part of ‘religions’ (in my opinion, cults) like Scientology or Hare Krishna? They are often missing something, so they are searching for something to shape their lives and give them purpose. It’s not implausible to think that the same type of people were so eager to follow Jesus.

All in all, it’s a hot new take on the most well-known story in the West. This is a great work of fiction, but at times my eyes slid over the words without taking it in. The prose is fluid, but didn’t absorb me. I read quickly, but I wasn’t pulled into her world. A lot of the time, Mary isn’t even likeable. Her love for her son pulses from the page, but that’s one of her only redeeming features. I don’t think narrators have to be likeable, but the book was so downbeat it almost got dreary in places. Likewise, the world-building of Nazareth and Jerusalem in around 30 AD felt slack, because of the extreme focus on Mary’s inner life. It didn’t transport me.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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