The work is pointedly not called a gospel — good news — but a testament — a giving witness to, an attestation. ‘I was there,’ she says. And, having seen the Crucifixion, the Mother of God tells the apostles: ‘I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it’ … Much of the elegance of this novella comes from its language, which is poetic but spare, much like cryptic music of the Gospels. And, as in the Gospels, understatement and implication are used to great effect … Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.
Tóibín the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed … Atmosphere is powerfully created; we share the bodily realities of events that, through repetition, have become almost generic and so, abstract … The Testament of Mary is a beautiful and daring work.
Testament is Mary’s actual version of events, the more earthly side of the story that her visitors refuse to write down. Mary relates some of Christ’s most well-known plot points—the raising of Lazarus, turning water to wine, the crucifixion—all the while waxing nostalgic on simpler days, back when her son wasn’t The Son. By her account, Christ’s most well-known acts were far from providential, and Mary herself isn’t as demure as myth would have it: Halfway through the book, she threatens two disciples at knifepoint … Unlike the pure, meek woman found on votive candles, this Mary is empowered, and above all, honest. She flees the crucifixion scene before her son has died, and does so, she confesses, because it was ‘her own safety [she] thought of.’ Tóibín seems to strive for emotional fidelity: How might it actually have felt for Mary to witness her son’s trajectory?
While The Testament of Mary is a first-person novella, the life of Jesus as told by his mother, it is also an argument about the contingent nature of the Christian tradition. Tóibín never makes that argument explicitly, and his book works just fine without it: it can be read as a psychological close-up; a noir-ish slither through the forbidding desert world of first-century Judea, stopping to wallow in some famous episodes from Jesus’s life; and an argument for how a charismatic mortal could have been transformed, with his own assent and cooperation, into a god … There is an incongruence between the embittered but fully realized personality Tóibín gives Mary and the famous plot he marches her through; it is as if the spinster post-war Irish landlord from Tóibín’s last novel, Brooklyn, has time-traveled to the scene of the crucifixion. I don’t want a Mary this contemporary and human—just as I do not want a Jesus who hikes up his shorts.
The Testament of Mary was originally presented as a monologue, first performed last year in Dublin, and the story still shows the imprint of that form: It’s dramatic and poetic rather than analytical and expansive. And it’s not so much a testament of faith as a confession of guilt … Her insistence on the truth becomes the book’s central concern and flavors this moving drama with an acrid polemic taste. The Gospel writers caring for Mary (or keeping her locked up) have ‘outstayed their welcome’ while interrogating her about what happened to her son … Devoid of any inspirational motive, Mary’s descriptions of long-hallowed events are jarring, inserting psychological details into the Gospels’ lacunae. Tóibín isn’t so much interested in denying the miraculous as he is in placing that question in the background to focus, instead, on Jesus’ disruptive presence, the political and social chaos he fomented.
Colm Tóibín’s narrative voice is that of an unremarked woman whose remarkable son (Jesus Christ, although he is never named) created momentous events, and broke his mother’s heart. Hers is the backstory, the shadow tale, of Christ’s last days and his death on the cross … Mary’s tale is extraordinary, but the book works so well partly because Tóibín bases it on the universal loss of motherhood – the fact that children grow up and reject their mothers, instead opting for independence and life in the wider world. On this Tóibín overlays the far darker story of this particular mother watching her son take the decision to go to his certain death – and her realisation that there is nothing she can do about it.
[Mary] tells the reader her story: the ambivalence, bordering on dislike, she feels for her son's followers, whom she describes as misfits, ‘fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers’; the estrangement she feels when he sheds his boyhood identity and becomes someone else, ‘his voice all false, and his tone all stilted’ … The book's climax comes, of course, with the crucifixion. Here, Mary gives full rein not only to her love for her son but to her understanding of the limits of their bond; "the pain was his and not mine", she says, unburdening herself of a final moment of weakness that her visitors would rather not hear. ‘The truth should be spoken at least once in the world.’ That truth, as Tóibín imagines it in this fearsomely strange, deeply thoughtful book, is far more subversive than it might at first seem.
As the novella opens, Jesus is dead and Mary is living in hiding in Ephesus. Two unnamed men, most likely St. John and St. Paul, visit her, asking for details of Jesus' life: They are busy writing the Gospel, building a religion. Mary, however, is busy mourning, and she refuses to satisfy the men's ‘earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all’ … Mary relates all of this — the life-giving miracles and the life-canceling suffering — in a voice that is so restrained, so understated and clear, that it renders the pain that much more painful … The Testament of Mary is a very simple — one might say classical — tale, showing how violence, even redemptive violence, frustrates our attempts to make sense of it.
The setting for this reflective and provocative narrative is Mary's exile, as she tries to assist the two men who have come to write down her memories so they might conform to the divine narrative they have in mind. Mary's testimony, however, springs from the consciousness of a mother far removed from her son's prophetic mission. She is unwilling to tailor her reminiscences to the needs of the chroniclers who pester her for anecdotes … Mary offers us the immediate details, the minute and the horrifying. She recalls the informers, who circulate through the rowdy crowd, searching for her, and a man who calmly feeds rabbits to a caged hawk. She is acutely aware of her tight shoes … This beautifully written ‘testament’ speaks to the testimonial nature of other theological accounts.
Tóibín’s temerity is a shock, of course, but it pairs with an avidness to imagine a Mary who speaks, and to hear what she might have kept locked away in her heart. Just as the historical record indicates a physical Jesus existed, so must he have had a mother, a woman who ate figs and oranges, pulled water from a well and sweated in the Mediterranean sun … Tóibín hints at the fanaticism that roiled around Jesus. The writer is brilliant at suggesting the ratcheting political dangers that squeezed Mary's son -- from the Romans, from the rabbinate … He succeeds in dissolving some of the oil on canvas that encases a historical figure.