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The Testament of Mary

by Colm Toibin

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
© Scribner
Scribner, 2012
Once again, the rhapsodic prose of Colm Toibin (The Empty Family, New Ways to Kill Your Mother) flows around the story of a family and the inevitable distance between two generations. Whether seeking independence from their mothers or their motherland, Toibin's heroes and heroines follow a similar struggle in each of his novels. In order to achieve greatness one must reconcile differences with one's own clan, to fully comprehend their birthright in all its greatness and shortcomings. With each new publication, Toibin further develops this difficult onus, projecting it anew onto both his fiction and his essays.

In a remarkable feat, the author takes his Toibinesque approach to the story of Jesus and Mary and has created sonorous novella, this time told from the viewpoint of the eclipsed mother. Taking more of an academic viewpoint of the Bible as literature, The Testament of Mary is set after the crucifixion but well before her exaltation in the Christian canon. Two apostles have started visiting Mary during these lonesome years in an effort to transcribe how she recalls her son's life.

The story they receive is one so heartfelt and motherly that it has no place amongst the inventive, foundational stories of the New Testament. Toibin graces Mary with so complicated and genuine a voice that her story shines with a mother's love, sadness and uncertainty. As she speaks of her son, she reflects on the unfathomable reality of his absence: "I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him 'him,' 'my son,' 'our son,' 'the one who was here...'"
One could get lost in the subtle complexity of this passage, how devastatingly quick Mary shifts away from referring to Jesus as "her" own son towards a broad, emotionless catch-all term for him. Above all else, The Testament of Mary lingers on Mary's involvement with the fate of her son, and how responsible she was or should claim to be for his actions. All she did was all she could, to love him like a mother loves her son:

"And what was strange about the power he exuded was that it made me love him and seek to protect him even more than I did when he had no power. It was not that I saw through it or did not believe it. It was not that I saw him still as a child. No, I saw a power fixed and truly itself, formed. I saw something that seemed to have no history and to have come from nowhere and I sought in my dreams and in my waking time to protect it and I felt an abiding love for it. For him, whatever he had become."

But perhaps that's not enough. Towards the end of the novella (and the end of Jesus' life), Mary has a moment of devastating clarity that will surely echo in the lives of every parent and parent-to-be: "I understood that I had not missed my chance to take my son away from here, I understood that I never had such a chance in the first place..."

The biblical nature of The Testament of Mary will have some readers divided, as it is difficult to read fiction of this genre without expecting a certain tone or message. The lyricism of Toibin's novella will quickly dispel any tone-related hesitation; there is nothing antiquated in the language here (no "shalts," no verbs ending in 'est') and this decision is one that will draw in even the most casual, non-religious reader. The message here, however, is somewhat more complicated. Those readers who have previously read other work by Toibin will quickly see the mother-son relationship that lies at the novella's core and proceed to marvel at the other themes at work, such as the subtle interplay between history and memory. However, those more traditionally inclined (who may already have a fleshed-out comprehension of the Virgin Mary) may find Toibin's Mary to be a far cry from their own. Toibin's story must be approached with an open mind and will reward readers with a familiar voice, but one only rarely realized.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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