Saturday, June 18, 2022

"The Testament of Mary" by Colm Tóibín--Fiction Review

Today Obscurists, we’re going to dip our toes into a new field of fiction I’ve not covered a whole lot, a religious, historical novel about the life of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. The novella is “The Testament of Mary” by Colm Tóibín.

Colm Tóibín

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

This book, in my opinion, takes a rather agnostic view on the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. While the character of his mother, Mary, might doubt his divinity, it’s never exactly refuted. It’s undoubtedly challenged throughout the plot but never wholly suppressed. 

To get a completely different view of the life of Jesus and from his mother’s perspective was very interesting to me. It feels grounded in the world that Mary and her life and perceptions were of our flesh and blood world.

This is also one of those times I feel a first-person perspective really works and sells the story. The entire story is relayed to us by Mary herself. It’s an incredibly intimate experience of this woman’s life, who loves her son while doubting his purpose and the reasons for his demise. At no point does the narrative romanticize what happened to Jesus. It was brutal, vicious, bloodthirsty, and done out of blood lust.

What I don’t love about this book:

It’s challenging to grasp how much time passes in “The Testament of Mary.” The narrative seems to start at the end with the crucifixion of Jesus, and then it dives into Mary’s story, but it didn’t start where I assumed it would, the beginning. It begins when Jesus was already a man and had followers, but it’s unclear how long this has been happening.

As much as I like the intense character study of a doubting Mary, all the other characters in the novella are mere wisps of characters compared to her. Even Jesus, the larger-than-life figure he was, is barely characterized. This may be an intentional choice, given the brevity of this story. Still, if you don’t immediately latch on to Mary’s story and perspective, there really isn’t anything else in this story. 

Ultimately, given its succinctness, “The Testament of Mary” feels like part of a larger work. We get allusions to Jesus’s childhood but no explicit scenes of that childhood. A lot of the goings on around Mary rely heavily on the reader having a secondary insight of the gospels and other Christian historical understanding, which is a long tradition in the western literary canon, but still, it’s a limiting factor for the audience.

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Author’s Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“The Testament of Mary” starts with Mary talking about her lonely existence after her son’s death. How she is kept—like a pet—by his followers who bring her food and money but expect her to go along with and support their version of Jesus’s life. Her recollection, however, doesn’t particularly jive with the “authorized” version of events told by presumably the apostles. They typically react to her non-canonical asides with exacerbation and scorn.

Soon we get the story of Lazarus, who had been dead, or at least seemingly dead, for four days until Jesus came and called him back to life from his tomb. In Mary’s telling of the event, it did happen, but it’s what happens after, when the crowds leave, that casts this seeming miracle into doubt. Lazarus was not restored to health after his time in the tomb. He was sickly and a shell of a man, who clutched his head as if in constant pain and was very sensitive to the light. It’s implied and only implied because they wouldn’t have had words for it in Mary’s time, that Lazarus might have some sort of neurological disease which might have accounted for his death-like stupor which made him seem dead and possibly buried alive.

We then get the wedding scene, where Jesus famously turns water into wine, and again from Mary’s point of view of the events, it’s a maybe if that miracle occurred. We also get a recitation of a couple of other miraculous events in Jesus’s life that Mary heard about but did not witness, such as his walking on water.

Then it comes to the crucifixion, which is just as brutal and terrible to witness vicariously as any other depiction of the event. In Mary’s telling, though, the feeling of desperate powerlessness and the pointlessness of the violence is paramount. She constantly questions the event’s logic and why her son has to die.

Unlike most tellings of the story, in “The Testament of Mary,” Mary flees before the end and isn’t there to retrieve Jesus’s body. She has to flee because her son’s persecutors are also going to have her murdered.

After a long journey with two of her son’s followers into the wilderness, she has a dream of her son revived, which the story leaves open may or may not have been divinely inspired.

In the end, we’ve come full circle. Mary is now old and waiting for death, lonely and wishing for the days before Jesus was a man and when her husband was still alive. She realizes that her son’s followers will tell their version of events that have been carefully corrected to suit their purposes—and she will die and be largely forgotten except as a character in someone else’s story.


The focus of this novella is laser tight on Mary’s perspective. This is done through the traditional means that it’s told from a first-person perspective. But also, Tóibín doesn’t name many of the characters in this story. Especially the people Mary doesn’t like. It’s a form of erasure that the story posits she herself had suffered in the Gospels.

At first blush, after reading this story, it might be tempting to call it atheistic in nature, but while it may lean that way, I think that ultimately it’s agnostic to the divinity of Christ. Mary’s perceptions of witnessing the miracles don’t disprove them. Her perspective seems to just introduce the idea of doubt.

By far, though, I think the most powerful line in the story is when one of her caretakers reiterates to her the reason Jesus had to die as he did. It was to redeem the world and to provide everyone with the chance for eternal life after death—her response, “It wasn’t worth it.”

Parting thoughts:

Religious, historical fiction can be an awfully touchy subject. I often wonder how the faithful react to such books as this, as my personal worldview has closed that avenue of shared experience. I presume a lot of religious readers react with indignity to the concept that Mary was anything less than worshipful of her son’s pursuits and mission in life.

Direct religious fiction, though, isn’t anything new. The “Divine Comedy” is one such work, and it’s fascinating to me how that work of fiction became the baseline for modern Christians viewing the concept of Hell. 

Where I get dubious about all religious texts and stories is; how do we know which ones are divinely inspired and which are not?

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