Book Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín’s novel The Testament of Mary has not only been transformed into a Broadway play, but it’s been short-listed for the 2013 Booker Prize as well.

The Testament of Mary promises much, but delivers less than hoped. While this revisionist portrayal of Mary as an angry, grieving mother, full of believable despair and rage at the cruel fate of her son, and anger at the inadequacy of his followers and their craven attempt to recast his life into something it was not through their gospels, is a welcome and overdue antidote to centuries of empty religious iconography, it’s an inconsistent portrait.

Testament of Mary_LargerIt’s a disappointment after Tóibín’s masterful short-story collection Mothers and Sons, into which this novella would have fit thematically. However, his short stories are well-plotted, and the characters’ interaction provides the spark and color readers crave, so this story would have been jarringly out of place. Tóibín is backing a losing horse from the first word as his narrative is unavoidably one-sided, and captures Mary’s voice and judgement at the end of her life, when sunk in hopeless despair and grief. Perhaps things would have been better served by providing her with a foil, or an interrogator of some kind?

I suppose it’s a measure of how times have changed that there aren’t charges of blasphemy and calls for the book to be banned. Fifty years ago half the country would have had a coronary at any attempt at a realistic, iconoclastic portrayal. However, how realistic is the book, really? Tóibín’s Mary still behaves like an icon, and appears at times indistinguishable from a painting, sitting in her room barely listening to the eager scribes consciously rewriting history through their gospels. To their point of view, the “real” Mary would have appeared not unlike a Renaissance madonna: enigmatic and mute. Tóibín has at least restored her voice.

In contrast, we are currently seeing a singular depiction of maternal rage and grief played out on our screens by the actress Jodie Whittaker in the BBC drama “Broadchurch.” As the mother of a murdered 11-year-old boy, Whittaker is the personification of unsettled pain, despairingly lost in dark thoughts one moment, lashing our with venom and anger the next. It takes several policemen to drag her kicking, screaming form away from her dead son’s body, and the viewer understands she’ll spend the rest of her life grieving. In contrast, Tóibín’s Mary is depicted after years of hopeless grieving, but doesn’t carry a hint of the ferocious mama-bear instinct. Her one attempt to influence him is by attending the wedding at Canaan, where she makes a single weak attempt to warn him of the trap in Jerusalem, then sits beside him mutely even though she sees his enemies closing.

Tóibín’s Mary chastises herself for her passivity in the face of her son’s crucifixion, analyses and excuses it, explains it away endlessly, but her grief feels anemic, too contained and unconvincing.  While the author’s indictment of idealogues and killing in the name of religion is undoubtedly heartfelt, and the message is resonant in these times, the delivery is flawed, strangely passionless and unaffecting.




I reviewed Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn some years ago, and enjoyed it…


I like to disclose where I got my book from, as occasionally it’s a freebie from the publisher. In this case, the copy of The Testament of Mary that I read came from our local library. Have you used yours lately?


Buy The Testament of Mary in the US from… (affiliate link)

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