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Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

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‘I REMEMBER EVERYTHING. MEMORY FILLS MY BODY AS MUCH AS BLOOD AND BONES. 

This is Mary. A mother whose son was taken from her and lost to the world. A woman who lives now in exile, watched by those who seek to preserve the sanctity of her son’s memory. But Mary’s recollections of his difficult life and tragic death are a truth that few who knew her son now recognize. As the myths grow around her like walks, so Mary clings to the truth, revealing, in a time of turmoil and profound change, her own fragile humanity.’

I was intrigued by Colm Tóibín’s novella, given the controversial subject matter and read it in one sitting – 104 pages in its entirety. A fictional account of Mary’s loss of her son on the cross and of her doubts surrounding the miracles and the disciples, it delves into the nature of her fear and confusion. It is a brave attempt to fill the gaps in one of the greatest stories of history and daring in its openness, in its raw uncovering of the destructive nature of loss and what it can do to a person. The Testament of Mary has a beautiful, almost dream-like quality and the depiction of Mary’s grief, of her anger and distrust, is striking, powerful and at times shocking. Yet I could begin to relate to aspects of her pain and understand some of her crippling doubts. Tóibín’s use of language is poetic and lyrical keeping the reader absolutely engaged. There are times when the mind often drifts as you read but this book draws you in and holds you tightly in its grasp until the author releases his hands with the final words that ‘words’ in themselves ‘matter.’ My only wish would be for greater detail in the scenes to plant the reader in the picture and the events as they unfold, but the book remains firmly inside the mind of Mary as she waits for the inevitable to approach.

There is an otherworldly feel to the narrative and an ethereal quality that links cleverly to the context of the book. An inherent darkness seeps into the words, leaving you with the sense that this could almost have been a psychological thriller. Literary it may be, but it has the power to almost transcend genres through thriller, literary fiction, biographical non-fiction. It is difficult to draw the line. There has been less opposition to the book than might be expected and for good reason; the fact that it is a fictional representation of a biblical story leaves the pages open and ripe for an author of great talent to sensitively explore what it might have been like for a Mother to lose a son in the most graphic and torturous of methods. The detail in the crucifixion scenes is just enough and it is not overwritten. The claim that he was the ‘Son of God’ is not the focus of the book and it is interesting that his name is never used, instead we are taken to the core of a Mother’s memories of her child as a baby and of the cold distance between them now, and her excruciating powerlessness as he is placed into the hands of his enemies.

An utterly absorbing and memorable read. It is not difficult to see why this has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This is Tóibín’s third Booker nomination. He was awarded the Costa Novel Award in 2009 for Brooklyn and has received numerous other awards and a Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlisting for The Empty Family in 2011. A gifted and enthralling writer. 

Listen to an excerpt of The Testament of Mary narrated by Meryl Streep.

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Author: fcmalby

Award winning novelist and short story author. Debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, winner of The People's Book Awards 2013. Short fiction published in various online journals and anthologies. Hearing Voices (Kingston University Press, Summer 2015). Unthology 8 (Unthank Books, Nov 2015). www.fcmalby.com

4 thoughts on “Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

  1. Thanks for a great review. Looking forward to reading it too 🙂

  2. I’m really looking forward to reading this. Your post makes me even more excited about it!

    • Great. I think you’ll enjoy it judging from your previous reads. It’s a powerful book and very subtly written. It had a similar effect to ‘Disgrace.’

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