2013 Booker Conversations: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Booker_ConversationsThe 2013 Booker Conversations is a series of in-depth, spoiler-free discussions between BookerMarks bloggers about this year’s nominated titles.  Today, Aaron Westerman, Penny Kollar, Jackie Hirst, and Mike Cohen partake in an in-depth spoiler-free discussion about Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary.

Aaron is Opinionless. Except of course when it comes to books or movies.  He’s the co-founder of Typographical Era where he blogs on a regular basis about the latest in translated literature, foreign cinema, and more.

Penny is 1/3 of the Literary Hoarders that works in research administration by day and dreams often of reading and working amongst books full time.

Jackie is a book freak and a Duran Duran enthusiast.  She’s also 1/3 of the Literary Hoarders.

Mike sometimes sails historic ships in New York Harbor, jockeys a computer other times, and blogs nearly never at

Colm Toibin’s short, controversial, Man Booker Prize nominated novella The Testament of Mary, is a fictional retelling of Jesus’ rise to prominence and his tragic death as seen through his grieving mother’s eyes.


The Testament of Mary

Mike: Penny… my fellow hater of this book…

I just reread your Bookermarks review, and it seems like you disliked it even more than I did, yet you gave it 2.5 stars, one more than I gave it.  Does this mean that you saw SOME redeeming qualities? Can you name one thing you did like about the book? He got a half-star from me for exemplary spelling.

Penny:  Firstly, I would like to call attention to Mike’s brilliant review of The Testament of Mary for BookerMarks. It was exceptionally concise, short and sweet. Just as short as The Testament of Mary, but so much much more sweeter. The length of the review shows Mike’s brilliance in writing in a manner similar to what Toibin gave us in his brief novella.

Now, on to Mike’s question as to why I gave my grade of 2.5, one grade higher than Mike’s 1.5 when I clearly felt a stronger dislike for the book. On our Literary Hoarders’ site we have an explanation next to the star-ratings: 1.5 – horrible, barely readable, 2 – Bad, but not without some merit and 2.5 – Meh, take it or leave it.

While my review intones I would say it was horrible and barely readable, I do not feel I could say it has some merit, therefore I gave it the Meh, take it our leave it and wrote that I am “leaving it” as I truly did not care for it. I cannot even say there was some merit to Toibin’s usually wonderful writing as I felt that the voice he gave Mary was very sharp and staccato-like. I again can find no merit as my interpretation of the The Testament of Mary is that he contradicts himself on more than one occasion. To me, he attempts to shock and awe and then spends additional paragraphs backpeddling on his measly attempt at shock and awe.

Aaron, you’ve given The Testament of Mary a perfect score of 5 out of 5 stars. That would put it in the “best book ever read” category. You’ve even ranked The Testament of Mary higher than the set of books you really enjoyed  from this longlist: The Kills. Why do you feel that this book is superior and deserves the perfect ranking and why would you consider this one to win the Man Booker for 2013?


The Kills

Aaron:  Well, first I’d point out that, at least to me, rating systems that attempt to rank books in relation to one another are ultimately destined to fail.  I can’t possibly hope to compare two such disparate novels as The Kills and The Testament of Mary against one another any more than I could hope to evaluate how the work of Charles Dickens stacks up against that of Dan Brown.  Just like all great expressions of art, pieces of literature don’t easily lend themselves to anything more than a cursory comparison at best.

That said, when reviewing a novel, I try to take into account how much I enjoyed the work and how successful the author was on any number of different levels.  The qualities I look for, or that I’m measuring, tend to vary wildly based on a number of factors.  I certainly don’t examine the works of Mo Willems the same way I do Don DeLillo.  For me, each rating is a stand-alone value assigned only to the novel in question, never to be compared against any other rating I’ve ever assigned.  Apples and oranges, as Suzanne Collins’ kids like to say.  Does she even have kids?  No bother.  The point is that “best book ever read” isn’t a category that fits into my system.  For me, how a book reads is only one piece of a complex equation.

The Kills
 was amazing, but it was difficult to come up with an overall rating that adequately reflected my feelings about it, since to me it wasn’t one 913 page novel so much as it was four separate books with additional web content attached.  In the end I arrived at 4.5, an excellent rating I might add, by summing the values of each of my reviews, dividing by four, and rounding up.  But I digress, what I really should be talking about is The Testament of Mary.


Colm Toibin

For me, Toibin’s book resonated on several levels.  The first being the idea that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read.  Obviously, each of us can and often times do have our own agenda, and even if we feel it’s for the betterment of all of mankind, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what we’re selling is the honest truth.  The issues the detractors seem to take up against this short piece is that it plays with and rewrites that supposed “truth” about the history of Jesus and his mother.  It’s fiction, it’s allowed to do this, and it does it well.

Second, and more importantly it presents a deeply affecting portrait of a flawed, but spirited woman who shares the universal qualities of all parents since the beginning of time.  As Mary watches her son grow from a tiny infant into a powerful man and then from a powerful man into a broken one, she expresses a myriad of emotions and has nothing more than his best interests at heart.  Does she believe he’s the son of God?  No.  Would anyone readily believe that of their own child?  Mary is cautious and pragmatic with regards to her son’s behavior and seeks to protect him from a world which wants to exploit his supposed gifts for its own benefit.  Toibin did a wonderful of making Mary feel like an honest to goodness, beautifully damaged, human being and not just some figure to be worshiped in relation to a birth.  Through his novel he allows her to become one of us.

Jackie, I haven’t seen your review, heck, we haven’t even had the chance to talk about the novel at all with one another yet!  In your eyes, what’s the most controversial thing that Toibin alters with respect to what the Bible tells us and is this change something that detracts from the story he’s telling or does it serve to enhance it?


Mary, mother of God?

Jackie:  I also enjoyed this novel for exactly the same reasons as you Aaron. Even tho it was concise and choppy what I really liked about it was that it portrayed Mary as a mother—not the Blessed Virgin/Queen of Heaven but just a plain old frustrated mother. It made her more human to me and perhaps this is what the controversy is. How could “Holy Mary, Mother of God” be an actual human mother feeling the same frustrations as me or trailer park Sue or the First Lady of the United States. Mothers get frustrated with their children and sometimes they don’t like them very much (even tho they will always love them).

I think of my own sons and how wonderful they were when they were little; when I could still control their every action (HA!). I compare that to now when they are 15 and 13, trying to push me away to find their own lives—watching them make their mistakes so that they can grow up is a really hard thing to do!! I struggle with some of the choices they are making already but I can’t even imagine if at 20 one of them started walking around with a posse of freaks proclaiming that he was the son of God!! Even if “God” came to me in a dream to say “this is what needs to be done” the mama bear instinct in me would always think of my kid first and I would do anything in my power to protect him. I would probably get pretty pissed and bitter if he didn’t listen to me and got himself killed. I found this Mary, to be the more realistic Mary—losing a son wouldn’t be worth it to me either—and I think maybe that is what Toibin was trying to show.

I also agree that this was a work of fiction so really should not be controversial in the first place just because it uses bible characters—fiction is allowed to be fictional and I don’t think there was ever a claim of “this is the REAL story…”. I read an article where Toibin was saying that he got the idea from looking at 2 different paintings of Mary that appeared in the same church—one where she was all benevolent and blessed and in the other where she was ragged with grief. We know the blessed version so what about the one in aguish? I thought it was a fascinating idea!

As a side note I have never been one to think of the bible as something literal anyways—even when I was a little kid and still went to church. I found that a lot of the stuff that happened made no logical sense to me and that it was more of a book of morality messages (love thy neighbor; don’t kill; treat people like you want to be treated, etc) rather than the “how to be holy” rulebook. I never even noticed that some of the stuff was “out of order”—it was laid out in a way that made perfect sense for the story to flow.

Mike, what was it that made you hate the book so much: the writing style, the length of it, the constant belly aching of the character or something else?


Jesus, son of God?

Mike: This is a tough question. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on it, and for just that reason, I have considered whether the very low rating I gave it was fair – but decided it has to stand.

I suppose what I disliked the most was the way Toibin handled the exposition throughout. There is a constant sly, “YOU know what/whom I’m talking about…” feel to it that just rubbed me the wrong way. Smug, perhaps.

You mention the length – oh lordy, that’s one of its finer points, it was over pretty quickly.

Penny, I’m curious if you have read many of Toibin’s other books? I have not, and I hear that they are very good. You referred above to “Toibin’s usually wonderful writing,” so I assume you have read some. Will you give him another chance and pick up his next?

Penny: I apologize if I’ve misled to believe I’ve read “many” of Toibin’s work. I own a copy of Brooklyn and prefer the style of his writing and character development in this novel as opposed to The Testament of Mary. As for giving him another chance and picking up his next, it will all depend upon the description and content. Should the book be about a young Adolf Hitler as a poor misunderstood boy bullied by a group of Jewish boys, no.

Aaron, you’ve suggested I start saving money in order to attend the Broadway showing of The Testament of Mary in answer to the challenge as put out in our original podcast this year, that if The Testament of Mary won the Booker, Mike and I would have to attend the Broadway show. Why do you suggest this? Why do you think TOM will win the Booker?


David Rawle as Martin Moone

Aaron:  I think that my typographical counterpart Karli has written a damn fine piece for the Why it Will Win series that won’t see the light of day until sometime after this conversation is occurring and out of respect I really don’t want to steal any of her thunder.   I’ll be rather vague instead and say that The Testament of Mary possesses many of the qualities that have historically defined what a Booker winner feels, looks, smells, sounds, and tastes like.

Yes, I have tasted Toibin’s novel and it tastes like a fresh packet of crisps.  Eucharisps, if you will. [Thanks, Martin Moone!]

Jackie, one of the most incredible aspects of this story, and there are many, is that Toibin sidesteps answering any questions with regards to the miracles that Jesus supposedly performed.  Did he actually turn that water into wine?  Was Lazarus actually dead before he was supposedly brought back to life?  Mary is never present to verify for herself, first-hand, if any these things occur.  Does this help ground the novel and make it more realistic, or do you think that Toibin is just trying to be controversial any and every way that he can?

Jackie: Oh Aaron!! You are going to get me in trouble with the Christians!!!! Let’s just say that I am a scientist and there is always a scientific explanation for everything. And I don’t believe in magic (unless you are talking about Harry Potter).



For some reason I did not find this to be blatantly controversial for the sake of controversy—and I am not sure why because I can totally see why others might think so (use bible characters to get the buzz going; slap your name on some unfinished thoughts and you will get a nomination; say blasphemous stuff about Jesus’ mum and you will win, etc.). Like I said before, I just seriously found the Mary character very human because of her more realistic reaction to her son’s death. I could relate to a reaction like that— and when I can relate, I know I have read a good book.

(love Eucharisps BTW—are they kind of like Jeez-Its? )

Mike, which character(s) would you choose if you had to write a new, fictional version of a bible story and why?

Mike: Well, as a captain of historic sailing vessels, and being well-versed in the art of dealing with difficult and unruly passengers, I think I would have to choose Noah.

We’d go the swashbuckling route, maybe add a talking mouse with a sword a la Narnia, and we’re in business.

Booker 2014 here we come!!

Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary is longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Award.  It is currently available in from Viking in the UK and Scribner in the US.

Aaron, Penny, Jackie, and Mike are all founding members of the BookerMarks project, which is a yearly collaboration between 8 bloggers who shadow the Man Booker Award and try to predict the winner.  So far, they’re 1-for-1.

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