Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Review: The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a slim little volume, a novella really, a sort of long prose poem. It is small, but heavy.

Mary, wife of Joseph and mother of Joshua, is facing her own oncoming death and is compelled by her own desire for simplicity and hoping it will make a difference despite her conviction there is no difference to be made, to tell her truth. Her truth is formed of anger, grief, shame, and pain. She denies the stories her son's followers are writing about him, refusing to go along with their attempts to shape events into a great story.

"I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and that he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to." (page 3)

On another level, this little novella takes a small chisel and hammer to the Christ story and the to creation of the New Testament that is likely to upset many a Christian, in particular fundamentalists or literalists. Luckily, this book being a short list Man Booker nominee, it's not likely enough people will read it to create much of the controversy it opens. For the less literal Christian, the nonChristian, the non-religious, and those who do not follow the Big Three monotheistic religions, however, it makes for interesting thinking. It posits Mary as a human being, fallible and weak, yet clinging strongly to a truth that is not popular -- that her son was the son of her husband, not of God. Her son's death was a matter of chance and poor choice.

"I was there," I said. "I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it." (page 80)

What caught me about this fictional recreation of Mary's voice was the woman Colm Toibin envisioned and brought into being, a woman who was a simple creature content with her life, with her family, with her husband, with her God. She loses all of these things, and must replace them with a grim, even heartless, self realization and truth. She isn't stupid or unaware -- she knows of the unrest in her ancient world. She understands that people change, places change, lives change. But she is not agitating for those changes. She longs for a peace made up of sunlight, quiet, her husband and her child. She is a creature of flesh as well as of mind. This Mary inevitably faces the truth she carries and refuses to support any other arrangements of events, any easy narratives or comforting stories.

In this book, in which she recounts several of the Biblical stories as well as the story of the Crucifixion, she brings us a new viewpoint, one that sees Jesus Christ as a baby and a child and then as a man drawn away from his mother, becoming something his mother cannot understand or want, but to which she is nevertheless still connected. Mary in this story is a very angry woman, but resigned. She wishes and dreams of things not turning out as they did, but accepts that she cannot change the past. However, she's determined that, even if it doesn't matter, she will speak her truth before she dies.

"All around there is silence and soothing, dwindling light. The world has loosened, like a woman preparing for bed who lets her hair flow free. And I am whispering the words, knowing that words matter, and smiling as I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place who linger in the air to watch me and hear me."

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