Mary is a mother whose husband has passed away and whose son has an entourage of miscreants and worshipers that feed his ego to commit acts deemed seditious. His arrest and death quickly follow. As a mother she is helpless to save her child. A celebrity beyond her control, she must endure the spectacle of his death. He is her baby boy: not an enemy of the State; a threat to the establishment; a martyr. Ushered away by her son’s chroniclers before her son finally dies, she is held hostage by them intent on making her part of his mythical life and death. She is uncooperative. She wants what all mothers want; her baby to be alive.
This is Colm Tóibín’s humanist retelling of the crucifixion of Christ through the eyes of Mary, his mother. It is not the “Satanic Verses” of Christianity, but certainly would have earned Mr. Tóibín a fatwa, had his imagination been focused on the Quran. “The Testament of Mary” is a universal mother’s tale and a creative reinterpretation of the New Testament. The Gospel according to Luke does not place Mary at the Crucifixion, as does the Gospel according to John. John has Jesus look upon his mother from the cross and say “Woman, behold your son.” The Gospel according to Tóibín has Mary in the fomented crowd, trying to avoid detection. There is no communication with her son while on the cross. In this respect, Tóibín’s tale is closer to the Gospel according to Matthew.
The story retells the miracles: Lazarus rising from the dead; water being turned into wine. She knows that the first jug had water in it, but she did not know what was in the other jugs. Mary is skeptical, but not a disbeliever. Her concern is the threats to her son, not the miracles that compound these threats. She believes in G_d but it is a quiet unadorned faith. She cannot return to the Synagogue after the Crucifixion for fear of being discovered and arrested. An old woman living in Ephesus, she does go to the Temple of Artemis and whispers to her.
Mr. Tóibín is a very gifted writer. This novella was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Mr. Tóibín wrote “Testament” a play based upon this book. He has two short listed Man Booker Prize novels: “The Master” and “Brooklyn”. This is an 80 page gem.