Colm Toibin's most recent novella is absolutely not short on feeling. It's an emotional triumph, blazing with regret and sadness. In a rather secular take on Mary, the mother of Jesus, The Testament of Mary portrays her as a solitary older woman, spending her final days telling her stark story of bitterness and blood to two of his followers, whose agenda is to change the world.
A note to review readers: this is fiction. Don't allow for Toibin's representation of Mary and/or final days of Jesus Christ to be spoiled because of your spirituality. When viewed simply as a fictitious account of a world renowned historical figure, this novella becomes profound in its imaginative powers for being able to take something incredibly familiar, and still be insightful. Having said this, Im sure some may find Toibin's interpretation jarring because of changes to the Biblical story.
Mary journeys to Cana for a wedding, and also to see for herself what many are saying her son has done: he has resurrected Lazarus. She is not portrayed as a heartfelt believer in her son, merely a mother begging him to return home with her, to be safe from the Romans and Jewish leaders whose power swells with their anger and fear.
Mary simply remembers the baby she birthed, remembers how "the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined." Upon meeting her son, however, Mary finds him who was once "delicate and awash with needs," grown into something shockingly changed.
"There was nothing delicate about him now, he was all displayed manliness, utterly confident and radiant, yes, radiant like light is radiant, so that there was nothing we could have spoken of then in those hours, it would have been like speaking to the stars or the full moon."
The story of the crucifixion is familiar to us, yet it is the mother's narrative that forces us to view the violence and despair with new eyes: "I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but it was so contorted in agony and covered in blood that I saw no one I recognized."
It is grief and memory layered upon a bitter twist to the end of events that drives Toibin's novella into a new imagining, as Mary decides to flee the scene of her son's death to save her own life, rather than wait to care for his remains and be arrested as one of his followers, a decision that will haunt her until her own demise:
"I have dreamed I was there. I have dreamed that I held my broken son in my arms when he was all bloody and then again when he was washed, that I had him back for that time,that I touched his flesh and put my hands on his face, which had grown beautiful and gaunt now that his suffering was over."
No matter your affiliation or beliefs, I feel confident that there exists an immense achievement in this novel. It concisely evokes a searingly painful moment of mother love, daring to ask how it may have felt for the world famous Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, to simply be a protective mother. Look at it this way... if you are concerned the differences from the Bible may make you uncomfortable, it isn't a massive undertaking at 81 pages.
This is the third of the Man Bookers short listed for 2013's award that I have reviewed, and I am honestly not convinced that this particular one is up to par, should you ask for my personal opinion. It is brave and emotive, yes, but almost too simple, too concise, hindered by its brevity.