Julie Christine's Reviews > The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2013, greece-turkey-theme-setting, historical-fiction, read-2013

I read The Testament of Mary before dawn on this Easter Sunday. A coincidence, but not altogether without significance. It is an Easter Sunday direct-dialed from heaven: every color in the dyed-egg basket is reflected in spring’s delicate light - from the cornflower blue sky to the coral-pink sunrise to the daffodils in scene-stealing yellow. It is a day to believe in Resurrection and rebirth. Yet, I am not a Believer in the Christian sense. That Jesus was a real man I have no doubt. That he was a chosen being born to a virgin and endowed with super-natural powers I cannot accept. In that, I share heart and mind with his mother Mary, as envisioned by Colm Tóibín.

These 81 pages are grim and transcendent: they are a mother’s reckoning with herself, a full acceptance of grief and guilt. Years after watching as her son was crucified on a cross in front of a jeering mob, Mary shares the experience of being the mother of a demagogue.

Mary is witness to the cheerful, vulnerable child who develops into an arrogant, impassioned man. She presents his miracles as she observed them, not discounting them entirely, but offering enough doubt that we question not her loyalty, but the sanity of those who remain convinced. Ultimately, however, the greatest theme to her recollections is the question “Was it worth it?” And the mother can only respond, “No.”

Mary fled to Ephesus after her son’s death, in fear for her life. There she finds greater peace with the ancient gods than with her own Judaism or the new faith bound to her son’s life, death and the legend of his resurrection. But she is haunted by two men who appear in her home to interrogate her. They are her captors and her protectors, disciples of the Christ not present at his death (Tóibín explains in this Guardian podcast that one of the men is John, which is confusing to this reader, as John is one of the principal witnesses of the crucifixion; the other, impossible in historical terms, but right in its literary context, is the officious and vaguely threatening Paul). These men urge and pressure Mary to relive that horrible last day so they can record and share the gospels they are writing. Mary reveals her testament as a mother hollowed by the guilt of what she witnessed but could not prevent.

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last year, the author rejected the notion that Irish writers are natural storytellers, that they are imbued with an instinctive affiinty for words. Tóibín stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. Nowhere in his work has this been more evident than in The Testament of Mary. This is not a work of religion, nor of faith or doubt; this is a book about a mother (a theme present in many of Tóibín’s works) and the empty space left at the death of a child. Mary never once speaks her son’s name. The unnamed dead represents the black, empty space Tóibín explores.

In the same podcast, the author also discussed what it cost him emotionally to envision the crucifixion of Christ - to set himself in that place of excruciating physical pain. It is rendered with terrible beauty, told in the voice of a mother who feels every moment of her son’s agony.

Mary is a symbol of peace and serenity and (disturbing) devotion. Colm Tóibín offers a brave and agonizing dimension she is rarely granted: that of a tortured and lonely mother, living alone with her grief. Whatever your beliefs, I hope you will allow Mary, as Tóibín does, an even greater dimension -one of a mother’s humanity and grace.
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Reading Progress

December 9, 2012 – Shelved
March 31, 2013 – Started Reading
March 31, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2013
March 31, 2013 – Shelved as: greece-turkey-theme-setting
March 31, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
March 31, 2013 – Shelved as: read-2013
March 31, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Jay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jay Perfect, Julie. Roman Catholic reviewers find the novel heretical. I found it essentially reaffirming. Have you read Crace's Quarantine? It is a strong companion piece to The Testamen.(less)


Julie Christine Jay F wrote: "Perfect, Julie. Roman Catholic reviewers find the novel heretical. I found it essentially reaffirming. Have you read Crace's Quarantine? It is a strong companion piece to The Testamen.(less)"
I thought this so brave and beautiful, Jay. I am not without faith, though my beliefs are not traditional. Toibin astonishes me once again. I will seek out Quarantine- thank you!


message 3: by Michael (last edited Apr 01, 2013 04:19AM) (new)

Michael Nice review. Coming from Toibn, I don't imagine it goes down the land of "The Red Tent" with the Old Testament. Feeling the drama of the theme in your reveiw, I can't help wanting to bend McCartney's words and exhort Mary's inquistors: "Whisper words of wisdom, 'Let her be, let her be' ". :-)


Julie Christine Michael wrote: "Nice review. Coming from Toibn, I don't imagine it goes down the lan of "The Red Tent" with the Old Testament. Feeling the drama of the theme in your reveiw, I can't hep wanting to bend McCartney..."

Michael- that is priceless!!

Great thing about the Guardian interview/podcast - there is a lot of laughter. Gives great perspective on the writer and the man.


message 5: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm I've only read Brooklyn. Your remark about motherhood as a recurrent theme seems to apply there as well.


Julie Christine Gary wrote: "I've only read Brooklyn. Your remark about motherhood as a recurrent theme seems to apply there as well."

Gary, The Blackwater Lightship was my introduction to Toibin, many years ago. This, and perhaps most significantly his collection Mothers and Sons (which I have yet to read), address the mother/child relationship most directly. I am so grateful for his writing.


message 7: by Michael (new)

Michael Julie wrote: "Gary, The Blackwater Lightship was my introduction to Toibin, many years ago...."
I enjoyed that one quite a bit for the mix of family issues with metaphoric imagery. "The Master", which tried to channel Henry James, was a bit of a snooze for me.


message 8: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm Thanks for the recommendation. Have you read anything by Alice McDermott? Brooklyn reminded me of her writing.


message 9: by Julie Christine (last edited Apr 01, 2013 06:28PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Gary wrote: "Thanks for the recommendation. Have you read anything by Alice McDermott? Brooklyn reminded me of her writing." I read Child of My Heart years ago, Gary. And I recall my husband being very enthusiastic about Charming Billy. Sounds like I need to explore more. Thank you for the recommendation!


Julie Christine Michael wrote: "Julie wrote: "Gary, The Blackwater Lightship was my introduction to Toibin, many years ago...."
I enjoyed that one quite a bit for the mix of family issues with metaphoric imagery. "The Master", w..."

I did enjoy The Master, Michael but I agree - it took a bit of a plow!


message 11: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm Julie wrote: "Gary wrote: "Thanks for the recommendation. Have you read anything by Alice McDermott? Brooklyn reminded me of her writing." I read Child of My Heart years ago, Gary. And I recall my husband being..."

They're both great. Also At Wakes and Weddings.


message 12: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne This sounds so interesting. I'm not Catholic or Christian, would I understand? I only know the barest of bones Of Easter. I do understand a mother's love for her child.


message 13: by Julie Christine (last edited Apr 14, 2013 10:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "This sounds so interesting. I'm not Catholic or Christian, would I understand? I only know the barest of bones Of Easter. I do understand a mother's love for her child."

Suzanne, I grew up in a strict, fundamentalist Christian home. The Bible was taken at face, literal value. It's hard for me to know how a non-Christian would relate to the Mary fable, but it's such an iconic piece of Western literature and visual arts, I can't imagine you wouldn't find familiar elements. Or, it may be all the more fascinating since you have minimal preconceived ideas. And Toibin is such a stunning writer, that alone is worth the price of entry!


message 14: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne I'll probably give it a try. I did not go to any religious school and my only indoctrination was to certain foods for holidays. As a teen and now as an adult, I associate religion with social things. When I taught, I used
Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible to understand the allusions. I taught many international students. Some were Christian , some Catholic and others were Muslim and Hindu . Of course others were Greek Orthodox and atheists. Anyway, though I never tried to indoctrinate anyone, I felt that they had to know about Adam and Eve for Western literature. I depended
Asimov and my students for the rest. Sad I should have found a Bible as Lit course.


message 15: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne Julie (other Suzanne here), your description of this book puts me in mind of one I read a couple of years ago called Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve, which was wonderful. I too have what we’ll call a “nontraditional belief system” after being raised by people steeped in the Christian tradition: one fundamentalist parent and one Baptist. I really loved this brilliant re-imagining of the story of Adam and Eve, told from their viewpoint as they wake in the Garden and try to make sense of who they are, and who is this God creature and how are they supposed to relate to him, having the questions about the nature of good and evil dawn on them, and trying to figure out what it means to be human. And there's a completely different take on Satan, one I've never seen before. It’s short and poetic and just a beautiful little book.


message 16: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne This sounds interesting too.. My to read keeps growing.


message 17: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne The to-read lists have a way of doing that here on Goodreads! I do recommend Infinity, though. It is a lovely reading experience.


message 18: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne Thanks, they're both added.


message 19: by Julie Christine (last edited Apr 14, 2013 07:08PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "Julie (other Suzanne here), your description of this book puts me in mind of one I read a couple of years ago called Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve, which was wonderful. ..."

This looks so beautiful, Suzanne. I just placed on my library list - amazed that the Peninsula system has it! Thank you.

Perfect timing, too. I culled my Goodreads To Read list this morning. I prefer to keep it manageable and review it every few months, deciding if I haven't made the effort to seek out a book after a certain period of time, it needs to go. Problem seems to be the books I actually OWN. Those get short shrift as I try to keep up with the incoming library reads. And those I chance upon which aren't on my TBR list ... As you noted, #firstworldproblems :) But I love getting these personal recommendations.


message 20: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne My daughter moved to CA 2 months ago. She wasn't able to bing her books. We are babysitting her cat and 2 or 3 shelves of books she couldn't part with. I have not added them to my long list, but I've read a few.
I just took a book, White Dog Fell from the Sky, from my list. So many problems(-:


message 21: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne So glad you’re going to try Infinity, Julie. I think you’ll love it. I hesitate to suggest books to you sometimes because I know you like to keep your TBR list under control--unlike some of us, whose eyes are bigger than our book shelves. But then, as we’ve noted, too many books to read = a good problem to have!


message 22: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne There's an article in April 16th edition of New York magazine called Mary,Mary, quite Contrary: Fiona Shaw as the mother of God. Boris Kachka interviews her. Shaw is playing Mary on Broadway. You might find the article interesting. I might try to see it.


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "There's an article in April 16th edition of New York magazine called Mary,Mary, quite Contrary: Fiona Shaw as the mother of God. Boris Kachka interviews her. Shaw is playing Mary on Broadway. Y..."

Oh, I adore Fiona Shaw. Lucky you, if you have a chance to see her performance. THank you for pointing out the NY magazine article, Suzanne!


message 24: by Jay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jay Re Suzanne's message #12: I am a cradle and practicing Episcopalian so am well familiar with the Christian Resurrection myth and the orthodox view of Mary. I do think that familiarity with both the myth and view would add a dimension to your reading of The Testament of Mary. But as Julie pointed out, Toibin's writing is reason enough to read his work. Beyond that, I find his view of Mary and her suggested relationship with Jesus and his mission to be far more effective and convincing than the orthodox view which, for me, does a great disservice to women and to informed faith. Toibin's Mary is multidimensional and compassionately human. One other thought: Much of Toibin's writings reflects in varying measure on the relationship between mothers and sons. The Testament of Mary continues in that tradition. Given that theme, the novel would have value even if the reader were not familiar with the Christian resurrection and the Biblical Mary.


message 25: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne Thank you.


Julie Christine Jay, thank you for such articulate and insightful comments. You are a treasure!


message 27: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Yo, wonderful review of a unique book! Most mothers will do what Mary did and will relate to this book one hundred percent. Your review is just as emotionally potent. Loved it!


message 28: by Cam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Cam Mannino Good review. Lots to chew on in it. A small thing. John was very likely not at the crucifixion except in his own gospel which seems to have been written abt 60 years after the crucifixion. And Paul could have met Mary because he came to Ephesus often and began his proselytizing within 10 years of Jesus' death. He never met Jesus, like the character in the Toibin's book, but he could have met Mary had she lived in Ephesus.


Cecily I love the way you contrast the pretty eggs and flowers in your first paragraph with the grim reckoning you mention later. Such a painfully beautiful book.


Julie Christine Cecily wrote: "I love the way you contrast the pretty eggs and flowers in your first paragraph with the grim reckoning you mention later. Such a painfully beautiful book." Thank you for the lovely comment, Cecily. I so agree. Such a deeply-felt story.


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