It amounts to no more than 100 pages, but Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is rich with spiritual, emotional and imaginative insights. Mariology has been an important player in the construction of femininity in our society. The figure of the Virgin Mary, the human mother of the divine child, is the model of loving obedience to a higher power. In his novel Toibin imagines a more fully human Mary, a woman whose role in the life of Jesus is as much informed by doubt as it is by belief, a woman made 'wild' by the violence she has to witness.
The novel is told in Mary's voice, and it is a voice as troubling as it is beguiling. She recounts her story of the miracles and death of Jesus to her "guardians": ominous, irritable men who seem more like jailers, but who we are led to believe are the gospel writers, the founders of a new religion. From the beginning we are aware of a story that is emerging in spite of the control exerted over it by a constituency who wish a particular version of events to be confirmed. They are the Gospel writers. Here is Mary's oral account of the events.
Like the Magnificat, Mary's testimony moves to the soothing rhythms of the scriptures. The language is kept simple, tender and dark. In her account we recognise the familiar stories: the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but they are given new and more disturbing form. She tells the story of Lazarus with stark clarity, tells how his body moves uncertainly from the grave back to life. Its occurrence is indisputable, but its proof of divinity is debatable. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but he is not restored. He can barely eat soaked bread. His golden beauty is tainted by what he knows of the grave. Yes he prefigures the resurrection of Christ but in Mary's story we are prompted to consider the folly of desiring immortality, the profound impact it might have on what it means to be human.
Toibin does something brave and profound with the scattering of information we have about Mary and the amplification of this into the figure of The Virgin Mary who has been such an exalted part of Catholic Christian doctrine. In some ways Toibin's Mary still operates as a divine mediator. She extends mercy. But she does so by reminding us of what it is to be human, what it is to fail those we love. Above all The Testament of Mary sees Mary as embodying the troubled relationship between mother and son, experiencing the grief of a mother whose son will not acknowledge her 'What are you to me?', and the agony of a mother who helplessly watches her son being crucified and then abandons him to save herself.
In Toibin's crucifixion the frailty of the body is still central to the story, but it is as much Mary's body as it is Christ's: he is flesh of her flesh, his 'heart having grown from [her] heart', yet she abandons him to save her own skin, because going to him, to hold his broken body, to bury him, 'would have made no difference.' Toibin's Mary is unflinching in the grief -stricken knowledge that she could do nothing except save herself. The drama of her experience of the crucifixion re-imagines it again for us with the authentic clarity of a lived experience. 'I was there...I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.'
And finally Toibin offers us her ascension, and he does so in the simplest and loveliest of terms: a dwindling light, a soft path, a silence. 'The world has loosened...And I am whispering the words, knowing that words matter, and smiling as I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place, who linger in the air to watch me and hear me.'
The Testament of Mary is an act of immense imaginative grace and chutzpah. It takes some nerve to tackle the underpinning stories of our culture and find in them something miraculous. But Colm Toibin brings to the task such a willingness to see what is original and true that we are all by far the better for it.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele