The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

Eight stars

In this short piece, Tóibín offers readers an insightful look into the life of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of his mother. The story becomes a monologue, delivered by Mary, that weaves throughout the life of her son, though she will never use his name. Mary offers memories from the evolving life of Jesus, adding editorial commentary when it suits her best. Choosing to see the disciples as a collection of vagrants and vagabonds, Mary cannot always understand why Jesus would associate with these fellows, which is further exacerbated by her ‘handling’ after the crucifixion. Perhaps of greatest interest in the piece, Mary explores the period of Jesus’ ministry, depicting him as ‘high on himself’ and trying to flaunt his connection to God, as well as a miracle worker who, like a carnival barker, wants the attention brought towards him. Tóibín’s presentation of Mary during the latter part of the ministry is, perhaps, the most stunning of all. An interesting piece that explores Jesus Christ from the one human being who knew him best. Tóibín’s writing is not one that should be dismissed as blasphemy, though surely many will try.

While not a ‘guilty pleasure’, stories that surround biblical events hold interest for me, though not when I am left with a sense of religious and spiritual inculcation. Tóibín does not do that in this piece, though the reader should be well-versed in some of the key events of the life of Jesus. Offering a sobering look into the man’s life, Mary is able to balance the highly laudatory nature of the four Gospels. Jesus was a boy, a teenager, and a man like any other, which is sometimes lost on those who have such a reverence for him and the plight he suffered at the hands of the Romans. I would venture to say that he was arrogant, an ass at times, and perhaps, so focussed on laying the groundwork for his ministry that those closest to him were left in the dust, both figuratively and in a literal sense. Tóibín does not stray from the first-person narrative of Mary, but is able to introduce a number of key characters into this story, as seen through the eyes of the woman and not the Gospel writers. The pace of the narrative was ideal, keeping things moving, but was not dismissive of events to save time. Honest sentiment flowed freely from the piece, which kept the entire story grounded and does not leave it as carte blanche acceptance of everything Sunday School and sermons have instilled. Perhaps the greatest thing of all about this piece would be that Meryl Streep narrated the audiobook version, using her stellar acting background to shade portions of the story in such a way that one could almost see Mary actually uttering these words. Brilliant and has left me wondering why I have never read Tóibín before now.

Kudos, Mr. Tóibín on this short story that pushes the boundaries at every turn. This is surely a piece that has created much hoopla, in pews and around water coolers alike.