Man Booker Shortlist – Book 01 – The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin


Man Booker

Our good friend WoodsieGirl has read all the books on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for the last few years. This is not because she is an avid reader, with varied interests and is constantly on the lookout for new great fiction. She does this purely to mock my inability to organize my book list. Honestly. It’s evil. 

Anyhoo, once again, she has kindly written up reviews of each book for us.  


THE BLURB (Amazon)

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is the moving story of the Virgin Mary, told by a novelist famous for writing brilliantly about the family.
From the author of Brooklyn, in a voice that is both tender and filled with rage, The Testament of Mary tells the story of a cataclysmic event which led to an overpowering grief. For Mary, her son has been lost to the world, and now, living in exile and in fear, she tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son’s brutal death. To her he was a vulnerable figure, surrounded by men who could not be trusted, living in a time of turmoil and change.
As her life and her suffering begin to acquire the resonance of myth, Mary struggles to break the silence surrounding what she knows to have happened. In her effort to tell the truth in all its gnarled complexity, she slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.


This is author Colm Toibin’s third time on the Booker prize shortlist – he was nominated in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship, and in 2004 for The Master (neither of which I’ve read!). The Testament of Mary is a novella (only 104 pages), telling the story of Jesus’ last days and crucifixion from the point of view of his mother, Mary. It’s written as a monologue – it actually started life as a one-woman play, which shows in the writing. Now elderly and living in exile, Mary is visited by two men (never named, but we can presume they are two of the writers of the Gospels) who want her to recount the story of her son’s life in a way that fits in with the legend that is already growing around him.

Mary, however, is not so co-operative. She is sceptical of her son’s claims to have been the son of god, and distrusts his disciples and their motives. Mostly though, she is filled with grief and anger over her son’s death. She recounts her sense of dread during the tumultuous times that led to his death, and her shame at how it all ended.
This is an incredibly powerful account, and one that feels much weightier than such a slim novella should allow. Mary’s anger and moral strength shine throughout. I particularly liked an early scene where Mary tries to stop the gospel writers from sitting in a chair in her house, a chair that no one sits in because it is “left for someone who will not return”. The two men assume she is referring to her son, and assure her that he will return – but in fact, she means her deceased husband. On learning this, the men dismiss her and one goes to sit in the chair, at which point this happens:
“I was waiting. Quickly, I found the sharp knife and I held it and touched the blade… ‘I have another one hidden,’ I said, ‘and if either of you touch the chair again, if you so much as touch it, I will wait, I am waiting now, and I will come in the night, I will move as silently as the air itself moves, and you will not have time to make a sound. Do not think for a moment that I will not do this.'”
The sense of unrest and social upheaval Jesus and his disciples have caused is vividly drawn, as is Mary’s fear at the inevitability of what is rushing towards them. She knows early on that her son is doomed, and tries to save him, but matters are out of her control.
“I sensed a thirst for blood among the crowd… There was a dark vacancy in the faces of some, and they wanted this vacancy filled with cruelty, with pain and with the sound of someone crying out.”
The crucifixion, when it comes, is starkly and graphically described. Toibin gives a real sense of the brutality of it, and of the suffering inflicted. Mary’s account takes in not only the pain and suffering of her son, but also strange details of the crowd around him: such as a man with a bird of prey in a cage, feeding it live rabbits from a sack. Details like this give an impression of what a strange, violent and bewildering time it must have been.
Ultimately, Mary’s story is a simple one: that of a mother, grieving the loss of her son. But it is implied that she lost him much sooner than his actual death: when she meets him at the wedding at Cana, he does not recognise her as his mother. She herself does not recognise the man her son has become: she struggles to reconcile this confident preacher who gathers followers around him and says he is the son of god, with her memory of the boy who “was beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs”. She also resents the intrusion of the gospel writers, and what she sees as a dishonest attempt to rewrite the events of her son’s life and death in a way that fits their goals.
“‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.'”
The book doesn’t really attempt the question of whether or not Jesus actually was the son of god, and whether he really performed the miracles described. Mary considers these points irrelevant, and so apparently does Toibin. The Testament of Mary is not an attempt to argue the religious or the secular side: just the human side, the story of a mother who couldn’t protect her son.
I’d say this book is near-perfect. The writing is flawless, powerful in its simplicity. I haven’t read any other of Colm Toibin’s books, but I certainly would on the strength of this. It’s hard to judge without having read any of the rest of the shortlist yet, but I would tentatively say that this could be a winner.




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