Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Testament of Mary," by Colm Toibin

I am a great admirer of Colm Toibin’s fiction. I was absorbed by “The Master,” a novel about Henry James, and more recently, have written here about his novel “Brooklyn” (1/28/10) and about his short story collection “The Empty Family” (1/28/11), both wonderful. And I wrote on 12/4/12 about hearing this author interviewed on the radio show “Fresh Air” about his new book, “Testament of Mary” (Scribner, 2012), which I have now read. This, like “The Master,” is a novelized version of a real person’s life; in this case, the subject is Mary, mother of Jesus. This slim book challenges all the traditional portrayals of Mary as “docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful,” as the flap copy puts it, and shows her as an ordinary woman caught up in an extraordinary, confusing and frightening story. Toibin’s Mary, the aging Mary many years after Jesus’ death, does not accept the portrayal of her son that is being promulgated by his followers. She does not agree that he is the Son of God; she distrusts his followers who now try to shape his story and to get her to conform to their version of events; and she is regretful and ashamed that she did not stay at the Cross until the end, because she wanted to save herself. This is a dark, sad version of the New Testament stories, the ones that Christians and others raised in Christian-influenced societies base their historical and religious beliefs on still today. But it is a very human one, one that makes readers consider that events were perhaps not as straightforward as they are portrayed in the Bible. I imagine we will never know exactly how the events of Jesus’ life really happened, but Toibin’s book pushes us to imagine a wider range of possibilities.

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