The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín, Scribner’s, RRP£12.99, 96 pages
Slim, slippery and unsettling, The Testament of Mary is best read at one sitting. The prose is simple and straightforward: 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.
This is Tóibín’s third novel to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for fiction. Its title is key to its mystery and unsettling effect. Mary’s story is a “testament”, not a gospel account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no “god-spell”, or good news, here. Her story is the very opposite of the four canonical gospels read with such reverence in Christian religious services, in which the words themselves are seen as a revelation from God. In contrast, Mary’s experiences during her son’s last weeks, and her account of his agonising death, are the words of a grieving flesh-and-blood mother. She is writing in old age but the horror has not dimmed: “Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.”
Tóibín’s Mary is bewildered and alarmed by her beloved son having proclaimed himself the Son of God, and she is angered by the “misfits” who follow him everywhere and draw unwelcome attention from the authorities. Even the miracles, as she relates them, are ambiguous and take place amid confusion and mass hysteria.
Mary’s reasons for setting down her version of events set her apart from the two men, once her son’s disciples, who now act as her protectors. They visit her in exile and ask this old woman to go over the events of those terrible days again and again so they can write them down. They are looking for “sharp simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all”. These are the gospel writers, and Mary is aware of what each man is doing. “I know that he has written of things that neither he nor I saw.”
She’s angry with the disciples, but, on a deeper level, she offers each of them a mother’s gratitude for keeping her son’s memory alive. “I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.”
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. “I realized that he had not even heard me,” says Mary, as she recalls trying to warn her son of the danger he faced.