To say Colm Toibin’s 2012 novella is controversial is an understatement. The Catholic World Report described it, on publication, as “the latest piece of Catholic-hating detritus” and stated “May God yet forgive and save the eternally precious soul of the profoundly sad and angry author of this tragic, worthless lie.”
Yet The Testament of Mary had already received a degree of critical mauling when it first appeared as a solo stage performance in 2011 at the Dublin Theatre Festival and, in 2013, on Broadway. Protestors asserted the depiction of Mary was blasphemous, with the production closing after only two weeks into its scheduled 12-week run.
The novella was written following the initial performances in Dublin, with the language and imagery reportedly significantly starker. The result is hard going, in spite of its brevity of just 104 pages.
This is not an overly religious tract or a rewriting of stories and gospels from the New Testament. Toibin is writing of a mother’s pain and loss as, as an old woman living far from her home, she reflects on the days leading up to the death of her son. For her own safety, Mary fled her home in Nazareth and now lives the last of her days in Ephesus (modern day Turkey), far from friends and family.
Toibin’s Mary is not pious or pliant (the traditional presentation) – if anything she is angry. Her son (she never uses his name) was surrounded by “misfits, only children, stammerers, men who could not look women in the eye.” Witnessing the inhumanity of the crucifixion and the humiliation of being forced to drag his own cross, the fact that he died to redeem the world was, for Mary, “not worth it.”
The Testament of Mary is just that – the voice of a mother grieving over the loss of a son – not only in death but also in life, taken as he was to “greater things”. She comments on some of the better known Biblical stories – the raising of Lazarus, turning water into wine – with a level of cynicism in keeping with the scepticism of the author.
But this aside, the musings in her grief and guilt maketh not a particularly interesting novella. The problem with The Testament of Mary is, like the last days of Mary’s life, exceedingly dull. It may be well written (as one would expect from such a consummate penman) but its ultimately plain boring.
Colm Toibin made the shortlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize (his third) but lost out not to the bookies favourite, Jim Crace and Harvest, but New Zealand author Eleanor Catton and her mammoth 800+ page epic, The Luminaries.