This woman who we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine in this portrait of a solitary older woman still seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament.
Tóibín the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed … Atmosphere is powerfully created; we share the bodily realities of events that, through repetition, have become almost generic and so, abstract … The Testament of Mary is a beautiful and daring work.
The work is pointedly not called a gospel — good news — but a testament — a giving witness to, an attestation. ‘I was there,’ she says. And, having seen the Crucifixion, the Mother of God tells the apostles: ‘I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it’ … Much of the elegance of this novella comes from its language, which is poetic but spare, much like cryptic music of the Gospels. And, as in the Gospels, understatement and implication are used to great effect … Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.
While The Testament of Mary is a first-person novella, the life of Jesus as told by his mother, it is also an argument about the contingent nature of the Christian tradition. Tóibín never makes that argument explicitly, and his book works just fine without it: it can be read as a psychological close-up; a noir-ish slither through the forbidding desert world of first-century Judea, stopping to wallow in some famous episodes from Jesus’s life; and an argument for how a charismatic mortal could have been transformed, with his own assent and cooperation, into a god … There is an incongruence between the embittered but fully realized personality Tóibín gives Mary and the famous plot he marches her through; it is as if the spinster post-war Irish landlord from Tóibín’s last novel, Brooklyn, has time-traveled to the scene of the crucifixion. I don’t want a Mary this contemporary and human—just as I do not want a Jesus who hikes up his shorts.