The Testament of Mary
A Novel by Colm Tóibín
2012 / 96 Pages
Whenever a writer gives voice to a religious figure, there is bound to be controversy, and this is certainly true for Colm Tóibín’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novella, The Testament of Mary. Told from Mary’s perspective, the story recounts Mary’s experience during the capture and crucifixion of her son, Jesus. Tóibín’s portrait of the Virgin Mother is not the typical Christian vision of a saintly and martyred woman – but of a grieving mother who is angry at the world and the heavens for the lifetime of pain and suffering she has endured.
While Tóibín mixes up the established timeline of events in the lives of both Mary and Jesus, the real controversy emerges when he suggests the Mary has turned her back on God and does not see the purpose in her son’s sacrifice. Tóibín also suggests that Mary may have abandoned the Christian God in her anger and fear, turning to the Goddess Artemis for comfort instead. And at the crux of the book’s controversy is Mary’s proclamation, “I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
There are already so many discrepancies in ancient biblical texts and so little written about Mary’s life after her son’s death that no one can claim to know the entirety of her beliefs and actions, but I have no trouble imagining that the grief and anger that Tóibín portrays was very real. And while many readers might find the perspective to be sacrilegious and blasphemous, I would imagine that any woman who was forced to endure such hardships and suffering would indeed be bitter and heartbroken.
But even so, The Testament of Mary does little to offer a clear and developed alternative to the life of the Virgin Mary, and once again, we see a woman who was defined by miraculous existence and execution of her son, when I was hoping to see imaginings of the more mysterious aspects of Mary’s life, such as her time spent after the death of Jesus, or perhaps a depiction of Mary’s relationship with her other children. While the scriptures are unclear about whether or not Mary actually had other children, it is a hotly-debated topic amongst religious scholars, and I would have preferred to see this aspect of Mary’s existence played out rather than the version The Testament of Mary offers.
While I’m not particularly offended by the notion that Mary was angry enough to turn her back on religion, I feel that the novel does nothing to revolutionize the story of Mary as we know her today. Instead, the portrayal is narrowly focused on crippling grief, disappointment, fear, and desolation. I highly doubt that Mary was jumping for joy in her remaining years as a martyr and widow, but I also doubt that she spent her last years wandering aimlessly, blinded and unwound by grief to a point of utter loneliness and consuming anger. Yes, Mary was immortalized because of her son, but her existence was surely much richer and complex than both ancient and contemporary texts would imply. And sadly, even The Testament of Mary did not break the tradition of portraying Mary as flat and one-sided. Tóibín just picked a different side.
This review was simultaneously published on Typographical Era