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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary - Colm Tóibín

This is a literary novella that imagines Mary as a bitter older woman looking back on her life and on Jesus’s crucifixion. Biblical retellings are not my typical reading material, and I’m not sure why I chose this one. To someone not raised to revere Mary as a religious icon, Toibin’s portrayal of her – doubting that her son was the savior of mankind and inclined to think that even if he was, it wasn’t worth it – often seems obvious rather than shocking. Perhaps that was his intention: a (somewhat) secular portrayal of a mother failing to connect with her adult son, unremarkable outside of its religious context. Perhaps his purpose was to humanize religious figures to an audience not accustomed to thinking of them in ordinary human terms. But to me, as a reader for whom Toibin's ideas required no great leap, these brief 81 pages proved too slim to create a real connection to the characters, most of whom are left unnamed. The rather ambiguous, biblically-inflected writing style is also distancing.


That said, this is a well-written book; while there’s little time for description of the world, Toibin does give a strong sense of a society in turmoil, and while we might not get to know the characters intimately, Mary’s loneliness, grief and guilt come across powerfully. Indeed, in some places – as in Mary’s descriptions of the miracles – the book’s ambiguity is its strength; in the confusion surrounding these events, Mary isn’t quite sure what happened, leaving room for multiple interpretations. And Mary's more difficult choices, as well as the confused fanaticism of the disciples, leave a strong impression. I wouldn’t steer anyone away from this book, but it’s probably best appreciated by ex-Catholics and students of religion, of which I am neither.