The Testament of Mary (Toibin)

I have grown weary of the familiar story told from another character’s point of view. It works and seems important in some cases, like Wide Sargasso Sea. In most cases, as with everything related to Pride and Prejudice, it’s a stunt, and the original authors ought to be paid royalties.

Colm Toibin has made a bold entry into this genre with The Testament of Mary, the story of Jesus’ mother and her reaction to what happens to her son as well as the efforts of the authors of the story to reshape her story for the Gospels. Toibin’s story brought two things to mind. The first was a comment from a college professor who asked us to consider what the world looked like to Noah after the flood waters receded. Where we had once thought of a brand new world, we now saw the destruction the waters had wrought. The other thing I recalled was a great show called On the Open Road at the Goodman Theatre many years ago. In this post-apocalyptic story, two men are heading for what they think will be the promised land when they learn that Jesus has returned. The problem is that the world is not ready for him yet.

Toibin does an amazing job in this short novella of giving us a very human Mary. He makes her story urgent; it needs to be told. She is a mother – first, last, always.  How does she react when her son changes? When she hears what Pilate has in store for him? When Lazarus returns from the dead? Toibin makes her fully human and her comments are believable. She says, in the end, “it was not worth it. It was not worth it” (80).

As controversial as this book could be, with Toibin painting Jesus as a bit arrogant and Mary as bitter, there have been, as far as I know, no death threats issued against its author. Progress, I suppose.

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