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They say there are two sides to every story, and then there’s the truth. If you consider the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as one, since they basically tell the same story with variations, here is the other. Or , another. This novel is not the truth, whatever that may be, but it is a fascinating tale.
Like a shroud of deceit, Colm Tóibín begins his new book. It is years since Jesus’ death and Mary questions everything. She has bouts of acute paranoia. She does not speak her son’s name. He is present on every page, in her every move and thought, but his name is never mentioned.
Catholic groups and the Vatican have nothing to worry about. Tóibín, an Irishman raised Catholic, not only has the respect for Mary that one might have for their own mother, but also for who she is in terms of religion, and, arguably history – the ultimate, most famous mother of all.
Older now, and surrounded and supported by Jesus’ followers, Mary is disdainful of men, finding them foolish and cruel. Tóibín imagines her thoughts, letting us into her mind to portray the stories behind the miracles from the vantage point of a mother. He presents Mary’s introspection regarding the changes she sees in her son and how his actions affect her views on him, referencing raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine etc., and, inevitably, the brutal crucifixion. The prose is not fanciful, but neither is it simple. It is forceful with an impact that lingers for a while. Written in the first person, you read about the ramifications of Jesus’ actions on the people of Cana, their thoughts about his deeds and how they act and treat him, and Mary, as a result.
Tóibín’s perspective is interesting, especially in this celebrity culture we live in, for at times the way he describes Mary’s thoughts on the people around her, how they treat her and stare at her, for they know whom she is the mother of, reminds one of celebrity culture; strangers watching you and treating you differently because of who you are and the subjects’ resentment at being the object one another’s gaze. I don’t mean this in a negative, tawdry way, Tóibín’s elegant writing and the subject matter elevate the book far beyond the petty and pointless things we are subjected to in contemporary media, but there are definitely parallels. She is uncomfortable with her “fame.” She is wary and disdainful of the men who surround her and protect her and take care of her. Two of them seem to be Peter and Paul, who coerce her into using certain adjectives to describe her feelings after the crucifixion and death of her son, her only child, setting the groundwork for the gospels yet to be written.
Tóibín has written a book not only for Catholics, or Christians, though a little knowledge of the life of Jesus and his miracles would help. He has written book for everyone, not matter their beliefs, because it is essentially the story of a mother.
The Testament of Mary
By Colm Tóibín
Hardcover, 9781451688382, 98 pp.