Novella "The Testament of Mary" presents a new picture of the Madonna

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Photo courtesy of Colm Toibin

It is easy to forget that our heroes are human. They become so pervasive in our history and culture that the lives we attribute to them are more supposition, fantasy and wishful thinking than honesty. It is easy to put our idols in a box, to mold them into a symbol of whatever helps us get through our lives. 

In Colm Toibin’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novella “The Testament of Mary,” the Irish author presents a picture of the mother of Jesus that diverges sharply from the acquiescent Madonnas and open-palmed statues so prevalent in western culture. Toibin’s Mary, years after her son’s crucifixion, recalls the events of those days with resigned bitterness and anguish. Jesus’ disciples have begun to build the foundations of a new religion, but Mary refuses to abide. To her, the death of Jesus was not an earth-shattering redemption, but the loss of a son.

The disciples have secluded Mary in a three-room house in Ephesus with the dual purpose of protecting her life and preventing her from sharing her side of the story. Mary, like so many mothers of ambitious young men, doesn’t really know what went on in her son’s life. It is only by hearsay that news of Jesus’ miracles reaches her, and Mary doesn’t know what to believe. She describes Jesus leaving their home in Nazareth, Israel, full of promise, to go to Jerusalem. 

“It was simple really — he could not have stayed … It was hardly sad,” Mary said. “It was simply the end of something.” 

It is this genuine, deep-seated heartache that makes Toibin’s novel so powerful.

As the end of Mary’s life approaches, she is haunted by her memories. She remembers the silence and the reverence of the crowd in Cana, Israel, when she, the mother of Jesus, arrived at the wedding where her son would later turn water into wine — although, as Mary recalls, “I do not know whether each one contained water or wine, certainly the first one contained water, but in all the shouting and confusion no one knows what happened.” 

She remembers, in excruciating detail, the way that the nails, “longer than my hand,” were driven into her son, “at the point where the wrist meets the hand.”

“Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones,” Mary said at the novel’s outset. 

It is through these memories, through the pain, the regret, the frustration of a mother who watched as her son “became a man and left home and became a dying figure hanging on a cross,” that Toibin has given Mary a new life. An honest, human life.

As two of the gospel writers grill Mary on the events of Jesus’ death, they gradually reveal the huge implications of their plans. 

“I felt the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief,” Mary said. 

But Mary seeks neither redemption for sin nor freedom from death; all she wants is the impossibility of another life, on Earth, with her son. She responds to these lofty promises regarding Jesus’ crucifixion with a grim proclamation, words that resonate coldly through the slender space of the novel. She looks into the eyes of the men and tells them: “It was not worth it.”

“The Testament of Mary” is Toibin’s sixth novel. Its sparse, brutal honesty makes it a strong contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize. The winner will be announced on Oct. 15.