Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Athena K's Review - The Testament of Mary

The term "novella" may be too big for this short story. I think that was my first disappointment. And the length of the piece is not mandated by the subject. The story felt at times truncated and rushed, at other times over packed and too dense. Colm Toibin has an interesting starting point here, but I'm not a fan of how he delivered.

The Testament of Mary, we are supposed to understand, is the first hand account of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. (In case you were confused, and I'd argue that you would have an excuse to be, the Library of Congress has helpfully applied the Subject Heading "Mary, Blessed Virgin, Saint — Fiction.") However, nowhere is the narrator identified as Mary explicitly, and nowhere does she refer to her son by his first name. Instead, Toibin relies on his audience's assumed familiarity with the basic story of Jesus to put the pieces together.

It's Toibin's coyness on the whole subject matter that bothers me the most. Rather than writing a compelling story, I think he wrote around a compelling story. His gaps are supposed to be filled in by Biblical scripture. He relies on his audience knowing the vague references he makes to characters from the gospels (without using their names, for the most part). However, as I am not a biblical scholar, or even a sometimes reader, I found myself lost on many of his more obscure references. Oh, I'm familiar enough with the tales of Lazarus and the wine-into-water miracle, and the circumstances of Jesus' death, but Toibin expected me to have a greater understanding of the details - otherwise his plot twist and foreshadowing fall somewhat flat, as they did for me.

However, it was clear even to me that the Mary narrating this story is not the sweet demure Mary of the illustrated Children's Bible we had growing up. This Mary is bitter, and dislikes people - particularly men:
I have made clear to her that her sons, if they ever should come here, cannot cross this threshold. I have made clear to her that I do not want their help for anything. I do not want them in this house. It takes weeks to eradicate the stench of men from these rooms so that I can breathe air again that is not fouled by them.
Maybe Mary's dislike of men springs from the loss of her son, but it seems that Mary was a bitter woman prior to her son's murder. Speaking of a time before his death, she states:
And so I decided to set out for Cana for the wedding of my cousin's daughter, having decided previously that I would not go. I disliked weddings. I dislike the amount of laughter and talk and the waste of food and the drink flowing over and the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed, for the sake of money, or status, or inheritance, to be singled out and celebrated for something that was none of anyone's business and then to be set up with roars of jollity and drunkenness and unnecessary gatherings of people.
Harsh words from Mary! Whatever it was in her past that has caused her to feel this way about people or marriage is simply not touched in this story.

Which gets me back to the very short length of this story. Toibin could have developed the plot so much more. Mary's experience of the circumstances of Jesus' conception, birth, and childhood remain a mystery. Oblique references to minor characters could have been fleshed out more satisfactorily. Mary's character could have undergone a palpable change into the acerbic misanthrope we hear narrating the story. We could have find out a bit more about Joseph and her relationship with him. Providing these details would have helped make this story more engaging and memorable for me.

It's my first of the 2013 Booker Shortlist novels, but its already not my pick for winner.


  1. This is the one book from the short list that I am not keen to read. I wasn't interested when it was announced on the long list and your review has just reinforced my feeling that's would not care for it much

  2. I don;t plan to read this book but was interested in hour comments. Thanks.