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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín - review

Colm Tóibín’s prose is lyrical but the message is diamond hard and uncompromising in The Testament of Mary.

Virgin with Child, by Gerard David, c. 1520

In the few exchanges between Jesus and his mother in the Gospels, he shows little feeling towards her other than the irritation of a man who has important work to do. She figures as the Virgin only in the first of the Gospels, and is present at the crucifixion only in the fourth.

But in works of art, she has been represented frequently and movingly, both as the innocent recipient of the angel’s inseminating light-shaft and as the grieving mother with her executed son. Throughout its history, the Catholic Church has enlarged on these narrative fragments. By papal bull, it was decreed in 1854 that Mary was “immaculately” conceived, and in 1950 that on her death she was assumed bodily into heaven.

If you can believe in the Virgin birth, why not these as well? But for Colm Tóibín, despite, or more likely because of, a Catholic upbringing, Mariolatry is absurd and the story needed retelling. In fact, Tóibín’s Mary, a natural woman and not in the least virginal, is not pleased with her son or with the company he has been keeping. His followers are earnest sycophants in whose presence Jesus (never named) has become a peddler of his own greatness, and of the wisdom of riddles – “his voice all false and his tone all stilted”; “I could not bear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge.” Since his death, his followers have become sinister manipulators of the truth and of Mary.

The crucifixion is represented in its full horror, and Tóibín speaks through Mary when he sees it not only as fact but as symbol of the religion to come – “foul and frightening” and an “unspeakable image”.

When I wrote my own version of the Jesus story, My Name Was Judas, I wanted only to represent the known (or supposed) events in a way a modern, educated and rational person could readily believe. That meant miracles and supranatural events would have to be explained as appearances and misapprehensions, tricks even, rather than facts. That seems to have been part of Tóibín’s intention, too; but there is perhaps an element of ambiguity.

Mary, late in life, is being pressured to confirm what is becoming the authorised version – that she was at the death, washed the body, saw the empty tomb and the risen Christ. None of this is true; but she knows it is what the world will be told. But had Jesus performed miracles? It seems, at least in the case of Lazarus (although she has it only by hearsay), he may have.

The Testament of MaryI’m surprised at the tone of UK reviews I’ve seen – “beguiling and deeply intelligent”, “moving”, “lyrical”, “a poem in prose”. The prose is indeed lyrical, perhaps in parts too soft for my taste; but the message is diamond hard and uncompromising. Intellectually, I understand Tóibín’s impatience: faced with the scientific realities of the 21st century, and the beauties of the natural world, why, except for its history, would anyone persist with this stuff?

But only someone who grew up right inside it could reject it with such vehemence and disgust.Here, I think Tóibín wants to show that, imagined as a reality, the idea of resurrection is a horror. Lazarus, deprived of the natural state of being dead, is represented as howling in anguish and pain. Christianity’s central symbol, then, is either untrue or repellent; and Mary has abandoned her Jewish faith in favour not of her son and his redeeming death but of the temple of Artemis, goddess of childbirth and of life.

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, by Colm Toíbín (Picador, $24.99).

CK Stead is author most recently of the novel Risk.