This woman who we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine in this portrait of a solitary older woman still seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament.
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?