Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary tells an intriguing, though not always convincing story. Its main character, and to an extent its only character, is an old woman fretting about her past as she tries to get the facts straight. Given the book’s title and story line, one assumes that the woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, although the identity of the characters is not clearly defined. If this were just any old woman, the book would probably garner no interest. But since this old woman is central to Christianity, she is inherently interesting.
So who is Tóibín’s Mary? She’s like no Mary ever seen. She is not the Mary of Luke as found in the story of the annunciation or the Magnificat. Neither is she John’s Mary, who stands weeping at the cross. Tóibín’s Mary doesn’t get it. At the very least, her son was a visionary with grandiose notions, but she is a simple, somewhat shallow woman who prefers easy solutions. She’s a Jew and keeps the Sabbath but has no problem honoring the Greek goddess Artemis. She is a mother but apparently ran away from her son’s crucifixion because she wanted to save her own skin.
Yet she suffers. She loved her son; but, one feels, he was too much for her. She won’t even name him, saying, “…something will break in me if I say the name.” Every line is imbued with her pain. The book is a dramatic monologue that puts readers inside her head, so we feel for her when she tells us that she tried to persuade her son to come home and he refused. Tóibín embellishes his story with exquisite metaphors as in Mary’s perception of her caretakers: “…they think I do not…notice the cruel shadow…that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices….”
As the story opens, Mary lives alone in Ephesus, watched over by her son’s (unidentified) friends. These friends want to invent a new religion that would establish her son as divine. But Mary won’t accept that.
Mary spends most of her time wondering whether she ever knew her son. When he was little, they were close, but then he fell in with a crowd of misfits. He became emotionally distant. She heard rumors that he healed a cripple and walked on water, but she can’t believe that such actions could be performed by the boy she raised.
As the story ends, she complains about feeling duped and refuses to cooperate with her caretakers. In an act possibly of rebellion, she visits a pagan temple, then buys a statue of Artemis. She decides to set the matter straight, to reveal the truth of her son’s life—with the testimony (of this book). The problem is, she does not know what that truth is.
An award-winning Irish writer twice shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, Tóibín explored similar territory in his well-received recent book, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, which examines family dynamics as they have influenced literature.
With his latest book, the stakes are higher. Tóibín attempts to decipher a mother’s complex feelings regarding her son. (The biblical aspect of the story multiplies the complexity.) If Tóibín were looking at this issue from a son’s perspective, it would be hard enough. But from a mother’s perspective, it’s nearly impossible, even for a writer of Tóibín’s stature.
Tóibín tries to compensate for the problem by cloaking Mary’s feelings in ambiguity. She thinks she dreamed sections of her life—especially her son’s crucifixion, burial and supposed resurrection. “What happened in our dreams,” Mary says, “took on more flesh…than our lives when we were conscious.” But how real can this statement be, especially under such dire circumstances? She believes she ran away when her son was nailed to the cross. But some say that she held him before his entombment. What happened? What really happened? Mary doesn’t know, and readers are left with questions whose answers are crucial to a valid response to the narrative.
It is worth knowing that the story was first written as a play. A live actor recounting Mary’s life would help to bring the story alive. Costumes, lighting, gestures, facial expressions, posture, bodily presence and tone of voice would make Tóibín’s Mary more believable and understandable. As it is, despite Tóibín’s poetic writing, Mary never quite comes across in her role as mother of Christ, which is what this story is or should be all about.