The Testament of Mary is a brutal fictional work about the mother of Jesus Christ. Narrated as a monologue into thin air, in her old age, it is the most inward-facing novel that Colm Tóibín has written since his earlier prizewinning novel, The Master (2004). That work was about the inner life of Henry James, in the final years of the 19th century, and writing it must have prepared Tóibín for the ordeal of writing from inside Mary’s head. The ambition and conceit of his new novel rest on the believability of the voice of Mary. The novel is quite disturbing for how much it succeeds in being a convincing narrative, and also for how much it plays around with the story of Jesus.
Mary begins at the end of her life, examining her memories and her heartache for her son who was crucified. In her own time, she leads the narrative back to the fateful time when Jesus became too famous for his own good. Mary does not dwell on his childhood, and the reader is only privileged to see Jesus from far away, from behind Mary’s eyes. This is Mary’s story, her gospel, and she leaves the room whenever her son begins a sermon for his followers — because “his voice [was] all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge.” She would not return until the men had dispersed or her son had stopped speaking.
The main thrust of the novel deals with what transpires in Mary’s inner world once she learns that her son is being watched by the authorities. She is warned by a cousin to stop her son from gathering disciples and spreading a desire for revolution. She is asked to hide him. But Jesus rebukes her, with the words “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” Perhaps he is trying to protect her, or perhaps he has developed as big an ego as the number of his followers. This never reaches a point of settlement in Mary’s head. She still loves her son, and she recounts the miracles her son has performed: raising Lazarus from the dead being the chief one among them, but also the turning of water into wine at a large gathering. But at no point does she give into the popular sentiment that Jesus is divine. The myth of Jesus being the son of God spreads, but Mary neither denies it, nor does she verify it.
The book’s jacket does more justice to the extent of Mary’s beliefs than reviews have managed. Many top reviewers have asserted that Mary in The Testament of Mary does not believe her son was the son of God, and that the miracles are wrongly attributed. But nowhere in the novel is this asserted. Instead, Tóibín manages to leave the answer just out of reach, barely subtextual.
Is Mary brave to stay with her son through the torment of his crucifixion, but not brave enough to intervene? Tóibín lets readers choose their own answers, with Mary’s defence and evidence presented fairly. She admits to failure. She admits to doubt. She admits to worshipping not just one god. She revises the meaning of her memories by reinterpreting them. She is utterly human. But by virtue of being a loving mother to Jesus, she is inherently a religious figure as well. She is strong and brutally honest, and the story inside her is as compelling as the story of Jesus according to the Christian tradition. The author has imbued his fictional Mary with an inner life that he admits left even him astonished. Tóibín says reading the work again was taxing, and that he does not want to revisit it anytime soon.
But how can the text not be revisited? The novel is short and crisp, and each carefully crafted sentence in it resounds like a bell chiming with clarity. Through purely an “act of empathy” in which he tried to understand what the actual Mary would have been thinking, Tóibín is able to craft sentences such as this one: “It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time — time that turns a baby who is so defenseless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own words and thoughts and secret feelings.”The Testament of Mary joins other great books on this subject matter, such as Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son and Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ. However, it is the first likely lasting masterpiece to be constructed from Mary’s perspective. Surprisingly, her story makes the original Jesus narrative (and all its historical variations) richer.
With its loaded subject matter, a credible and forceful narrative voice, and transporting language, it is no wonder that The Testament of Mary was longlisted for the Booker Prize. At just over a hundred pages, it is well worth the few hours of absorbing reading it promises, and delivers.
REVIEW: BYSHEHERYAR B. SHEIKH, The reviewer teaches rhetoric at LUMS
The Testament of Mary: (NOVEL) By Colm Tóibín Penguin Books, UK, ISBN 978-0241962978, 112pp.
Book Review- NY Times
What’s more, Streep is practically a religious icon herself — or an aesthetic one, anyway. She’s virtually been sanctified as the Greatest Film Actress of her generation, which is why she’s managed to gobble up practically all the juicy roles for women over 45 in Hollywood in the past decade or so. (And blithely stooped to conquer quite a few of the not-so-juicy ones, too, as in “Mamma Mia!”)
Now she’s landed a ripe plum of a different kind, and one that, in my view, provides her with yet another great role. Streep has recorded the audio edition of “The Testament of Mary,” Colm Toibin’s haunting, austere and deeply affecting book written in the voice of a figure who has gone largely voiceless (if hardly imageless) throughout the history of Christianity: the Virgin Mary, a.k.a. the Madonna, a.k.a. the woman who gave birth to the man who radically changed the course of Western history.
“The Testament of Mary” is sort of an ideal audiobook. The novel is short, to begin with (just 81 pages), and written in the first person, obviating the sometimes cumbersome chunks of description that can challenge one’s powers of concentration. In fact, Toibin conceived and wrote Mary’s testament as a dramatic monologue, which was performed by the great Irish actress Marie Mullen at the Dublin Theater Festival in 2011. Later Toibin expanded the text into a book published in 2012 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This past spring, another theatrical interpretation was produced on Broadway, with another great Irish actress, Fiona Shaw, playing the role.
That staging, directed by Shaw’s frequent collaborator Deborah Warner, was to me a frustrating disappointment. Although both actress and director are inventive and highly intelligent artists, the elaborate, fussy production they came up with belied the elemental serenity that is a hallmark of the book. The voice in “The Testament of Mary” is that of a woman recalling events she witnessed — culminating, I need hardly add, in the brutal crucifixion of her own child — with a hard-won and desperately necessary detachment: To fully re-enter the emotion of the experience would lead to the total collapse of the hollowed-out shell this woman has become.
Streep’s voice is familiar to generations of moviegoers, but its beauty as an instrument can be appreciated in this context as it often cannot be in films. Streep has become celebrated for her chameleonic changes, often involving impeccable accents of various kinds. I have to confess I’ve often resisted her film work, admiring her dazzling technical facility while at the same time being distracted by it. Except in some of her lighter comic roles, she’s never been an actress who makes it look effortless; she’s no Fred Astaire of screen-acting technique.
But while the role of Toibin’s Mary is richly specific — that is the marvel of the book, how vividly and complexly human, as opposed to legendary, the figure speaking to us seems — Streep employs no accent, and obviously we are not going to be either enchanted or distracted by her adeptness at physically refashioning herself to suit a character.
The result: simplicity, honesty, a clarity that draws us into the emotional landscape of the book through the beauty of the writing — and it is as beautiful as anything this gifted Irish writer has produced. But often there is also a simmering intensity, as of overwhelming feeling held just barely in check. And there is, again, the sheer beauty of the voice, which has a cello-like resonance, slightly dark-timbred. Streep has an impressive ability to crest the structurally intricate sentences Toibin has fashioned, which sometimes have the flowing, rhythmic cadences of certain passages in the Bible itself.
Not that Mary’s testament lines up with the version of events depicted in the Gospels. On the contrary, her description of the confusion and mystery surrounding the last weeks and months of her son’s life differs in key respects from the version of Christian liturgy. Toibin leaves unanswered the question of whether she believes her son is the Son of God, but the clear implication is that she does not.
When the disciples attempting to re-educate her into the “official” version of the story say her son had to die so that “everyone in the world will know eternal life,” a bitter note of sarcasm enters Streep’s mostly placid narrative: “Oh, eternal life!” she dryly says. “Oh, everyone in the world!”
From the perspective of a woman who watched her son die in extremes of agony at the hands of brutality such as she could not imagine witnessing and continuing to live, these words are meaningless. At other times Streep infuses her reading with a sense of quiet wonder and surprise: How is it possible that the little boy who behaved like any other grew up to be the remote, slightly grand, inaccessible young man whose stirring up of discontent has so dangerously riled the authorities? When she meets him at the wedding in Cana, she is baffled and distressed when she hears him say he is the Son of God.
Streep rises to the heights of the most harrowing passages in the book with a stealth that takes you by surprise, so fluidly does she connect the subtle changes in feeling that overtake Mary as she tells of her confusion at what is happening, her fear when she hears that her son’s death has been ordained, her horror at bearing witness to it.
Even this was not the greatest of her sufferings. That came later, when Mary looks back and recalls the terrible instinct that seized hold of her — the urge to flee, to save her own life, knowing that all Jesus’ followers and those associated with him would be targeted. (The name Jesus does not occur in the text.)
“I must let the words out,” Streep’s Mary says, and you feel the anguish of the necessary release, “that despite the panic, despite the desperation, the shrieking, despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh, despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.”
Mortal terror for her own life — the instinct to live that even the official version of the Christ story perhaps grants to Jesus when he asks God that the burden be lifted from him — came upon her fierce and irresistible. “I would leave him to die alone if I had to,” Mary says, and Streep’s voice has returned to its rigorously refrigerated tone. “And that is what I did.”
That, of course, is not the version of events that has been passed down through history, in the Bible and in the innumerable paintings that show Mary tending to her dying or dead son at the foot of the Cross.
Toibin’s exquisite book, rendered by Streep with all its detached, quiet, consoling humanity intact, belies those revered images. As Mary says in the final pages, referring to her abandonment of the dying son she had tried so desperately to save, “It is what really happened that is unimaginable.”
By Charles Isherwood, theater critic for The Times.
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