The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – Book Review

None of the biblical tales I’ve  read delve much into what Mary thought of her son’s ascension from child of a virgin birth to son of God, but in Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary, readers get an earful of what Mary thought  of Jesus’s teachings, his sycophantic adherents and his tragic downfall. We first meet Mary several years after the crucifixion. She is living alone, but under the supervision of “guardians”, who house, feed and ostensibly record her version of events of her Christ’s last days. Toíbín astutely characterizes Mary as a mother who has been subsumed by grief, coldly objectifying her actions during her son’s last days, and thinking of how little she considered the path he had chosen and the man he became. The self-sacrificing, comforting figure of The Virgin Mary is replaced by a complex woman who loved her child but who also placed a premium on her own well-being in the wake of his provocative, danger-courting lifestyle.

Mary tells the bulk of her story in an aside to the reader. Never anyone’s fool, she doesn’t trust the guardians not to pervert her version of events in their efforts to revere Christ. She knows that their reverential view of him and their determination to change the world by telling “his” story is at odds with her view of the man and any alternate explanations she might give concerning the miracles he performed, and his subsequent rise from the grave.

The Testament of Mary is a thoughtful and entertaining account of one of the most famous deaths in the world. Mary isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy but I loved her no-nonsense approach to the hoopla that enveloped and influenced her son. Toíbín’s examination of the construction of narrative, and silencing of voices not fitting within that narrative is telling- food for thought when contemplating the stories which have served as the guiding principles in our own lives. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Book Notes: November 2012   Reading List

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  1. Completely intriguing premise for a book if you ask me! Having spent my childhood going to church I often pondered what Mary was really like and what her life was like both before and after her son’s death. Sounds like this author took a good crack and giving us some fictional insight.

    1. What was really interesting about Mary and her life after Jesus, is that I never considered that as one so close to a leading and religious political figure, she would have been in danger and closely scrutinized. After reading this, I thought a lot about the way biblical stories are rarely questioned. For me, part of that is that the stories mostly seem fantastical so it was nice to consider the “reality”.

  2. This does sound really interesting, and something that I might not have chosen for myself had I not read your review. It’s curious, because I learned in bible study that Mary and Jesus’ brothers had a significant problem with the message he carried, and often referred to him as crazy. Very interesting review of a provocative and alluring book. Thanks for sharing it with me 🙂