The Testament of Mary

A book review I wrote some time ago that hasn't yet found a home - a brief version appeared in the Old St Paul's White Rose magazine. I may as well post it here.

'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' The stark Gospel passage in which Jesus brusquely dismisses his mother, brothers and sisters is the prism through which Colm Tóibin's novella The Testament of Mary seeks to re-imagine the relationship between Mary and her son.

The testament takes the form of reflections written by Mary from the house overlooking Ephesus where, Christian tradition has it, she lived out her last years under the protection of the apostle John.

Tóibin's Mary depicts John and the other disciples as shadowy figures, interested in her memories of Jesus only in so far as they supply scenes and vignettes that can be woven seamlessly into the exulted narrative they wish to craft about the coming of the Messiah: 'They seem more impatient with me and the world. There is something hungry and tough in them. A brutality boiling in their blood.' She refuses to tailor her recollections accordingly, and instead sets down her own secret testimony, an effort to preserve her own understanding of her son, her own sense of self:

It is what really happened that is unimaginable, and it is what really happened that I must face now in these months before I go into my grave or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees.

Her tone is resigned, suffused with the melancholy expectation that her story will die with her, that her quiet voice will be 'cast aside like something blown in on the wind.' Mary's words illuminate the many ways women embedded within patriarchal cultures were and are silenced, and the capacity of religious fervour to reshape or simply ignore counterstories that go against the grain of a desired metanarrative.

The raising of Lazarus

One might think that given this unflattering portrayal of the early Christians Tóibin’s Jesus would be a thoroughly demythologised figure, a first century Palestinian wonderworker awaiting posthumous elevation to the Christ of faith. But this Jesus works miracles: Bartimaeus is given his sight, the water is turned into wine, and Lazarus rises again (an episode that inspires some of the book's best writing, drawing on - as Tóibin has acknowledged - tropes from 19th century Gothic to communicate something of the fascinated horror witnesses to such an event might have experienced: a gospel miracle as it might have been imagined by Mary Shelley.) Indeed this Jesus is a magisterial figure, conscious of and excited by the charisma and supernatural powers invested in him:

With my son there was a sense of the fluster of life, the bright sky on a windy day, or the trees when they were filled with ripe, unharvested fruit, a sense of an unthinking energy, like a bounty.

But though she follows her son's progress with confused wonder, as his ministry gathers momentum Jesus becomes a distant figure to Mary, not so much embarrassed by as scarcely conscious of her growing concern for his safety. She becomes an irritant and burden to his disciples, both before and after the crucifixion (described with all the spare intensity one might expect of Tóibin), not quite the fund of affirming recollections of her son's nascent divinity that they had hoped for.

In the end Mary's account reads more like tragedy than gospel. In so far as she affirms the miracle stories her story holds open the possibility that he was indeed the Son of God. But for Mary the light of that promise is suffocated by the crucifixion. She has been granted no resurrection appearance, and doubts the claims of those who claim to have seen a risen Christ. She can say no more than that her son's ministry ended in brutal death, that his memory is undergoing irreversible distortion.

A bleak book then. And one might wonder whether Tóibin's concern to disentangle the real figure of Mary from patriarchy, from the etherial blue-robed image of the Mother of God, falsifies her memory further. One might hope for her sake that there is truth in the orthodox Christian tradition that she lived to understand that her son's life and sufferings had ultimate meaning, and was cared for and venerated by the community of the early church. Who knows. What one can say is that The Testament of Mary is a powerful evocation of a mother's grief, a grief stronger than fragile webs of theological speculation.