Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary is a clever re-imagining of the process of how the Christian Gospels came into being. It is written from the perspective of an old and bitter Mary of Nazareth, who reflects on her current exile and the death of her son, Jesus. The Testament of Mary began life as a stage play and that influence shows. Unlike the Gospels that it alludes to, this is a personal reflection; essentially it is a 30,000 word soliloquy. Mary's narrative is thankfully not rendered into something that would reflect the denial of education to Palestinian Jewish women of her era. Instead, we can feast upon Tóibín's finely crafted literary prose as he presents a Mary who reflects in sentences replete with sub-clauses. In that sense it definitely shows its theatrical origins. I do not regret the incongruence of presenting Mary in this way, although other readers might prefer a more authentic form of first person narration.
The cleverness of the novel is easy for me to perceive as I spent many years teaching Biblical Studies, but it may be a little too clever for its own good. This is a similar problem to the allusions in James Joyce's Ulysses being lost on current readers who do have the same grounding in either Homer or Shakespeare that previous generations did. Tóibín might have been better to extend his very short novel into something that allowed more clues for generations that have little fluency in the formative texts of Christianity. Those who do possess that fluency may make the mistake that I did of thinking that he is getting some of his research wrong, but that appears to be his whole point. Namely, that the Gospels read today do not reflect the historical reality that Mary experienced.
This is indeed a short novel, but well worth the read, with some clever twists in the tale. In 2013 it was the shortest text ever shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which has a clear rule that submissions must be of novel length. The Testament of Mary presents a challenge to those who wish to lay down their rules for word length definitions of novels and novellas. I did not find this novel too short, although those less fluent in Biblical Studies could have benefited from some more words to clue them into the allusions.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved.