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Book review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

  • by LESLEY MCDOWELL
 

THE “testament” of the woman who never speaks, the mother of Jesus Christ, is a compact one at just over 100 pages. But in its economy, Toibin follows another, newer kind of tradition: that of the concise updated myth, favoured so recently by David Malouf’s Ransom and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (both just clearing 200 pages).

The Testament of Mary

by Colm Toibin

Viking, 112pp, £12.99

They both permitted a narrower but deeper perspective on the vast, epic event that was the Trojan war by focusing on particular individuals – in Malouf’s case, the meeting between Achilles and Priam when the Trojan king goes to beg for his son, Hector’s body, for burial; and in Atwood’s case, Odysseus’s wife Penelope, waiting for her husband’s return.

In giving us Mary’s unadorned words, Toibin also gives us a more intimate and more profound perspective on the West’s pre-eminent grand narrative. This is a first-person account of a flesh-and-blood woman who is constantly haunted by her memory of giving birth to her child, by his playing in the sun when he was a child, by his walks to the temple with his human father. There is nothing divine about her son except what is always divine to mothers – their own child’s uniqueness, and the love they bear him.

We meet Mary long after her son has been crucified and she has fled in fear for her life. Men visit her in her home to talk to her about him (or to protect her from harm, or to keep her prisoner, she is never sure which) as they are writing a history of his life. They ply her with questions she doesn’t want to answer. In this complex new world, her son can be proclaimed the “son of God”, but his mother keeps a statue of the goddess Artemis hidden in her house: “I gazed at the statue of the old goddess, she who has seen more than I have and suffered more because she has lived more …” This is a humanists’ Mary, a woman who identifies with goddesses because of her own experiences, a mirror to all of our projections of our own lived experiences on to a single deity. We make God, and his son, in our own image, after all.

In Mary’s account too, though, there is more recent Irish history: the mass emigration of sons from rural villages where there isn’t enough work, to cities far away (“I knew that he would easily find work and … I wrapped for him what he would need as the other mothers did whose sons were leaving”). It was “hardly sad”, she recalls; there was hope in their leaving. But when her cousin, Marcus, calls her to Cana, to see what her son is doing there, she finds a ghostly pale but real Lazarus, risen from the dead, and an unrecognisable Christ, dressed in rich clothes, glowing with a power that she, along with everyone else, finds irresistible. He rejects her when she comes to warn him of dangers to him; she is powerless to stop him or save him.

That sense of impotence reaches its peak during her son’s trial and subsequent crucifixion. Like his friends and followers, she doesn’t try to rescue him, not does she turn her face away from his suffering. She reflects on the strange capacity she had to “control” herself – this is the only power she has now. The men who subsequently want her account of what happened at the crucifixion and after aren’t interested in the truth, however – they have already made up their minds what took place, and what role she had in it all.

Toibin writes a simple but majestic and powerful tale of a woman trying to set the record straight. This is an alternative to the myth of Mary; as a gay Catholic Irishman, Toibin’s relationship with the church that idolises her has always been a complex one, and here he imagines what a mother might feel on witnessing the excruciating death of her son, to make her a woman we can reach out and touch. His human Mary fails her son, flees and hides; she is not the miracle-worker of Christian teaching. But she is also every mother who has ever waved her child away on his own path, and watched him walk away from her.

 

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