by K.M. Zahrt
Recently, during the Easter holiday, I had a chance to read The Testament of Mary (2012) by Colm Toibin, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize. That was the third time Toibin had been shortlisted for one of the most prestigious literary prizes, but the Ireland native has yet to take it home. On October 15, 2013, Eleanor Catton won the prize for her massive novel and brick substitute, The Luminaries. Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, in stark contrast, is a lightweight at 86 pages in length, if you include the Author’s Note at the back, and I will because it’s important.
Although Toibin’s book is compact, it should be given about the same amount of reading time as a longer work, maybe not as long as Catton’s The Luminaries, but at least as much as an average 200-400 page novel. Don DeLillo’s shorter works, The Body Artist (2002) and Point Omega (2010), come to mind. These books are slimmed down to their essence, not to be read like cliff notes of a larger work, but to allow the reader more focused time to savor what is left. For that reason, I believe, DeLillo labels them novels as opposed to novellas or simply fiction.
As the novel opens, Mary is surrounded by disciples after the Crucifixion. She says, “There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not anymore. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched” (p. 1). In Toibin’s economy of language, he is able to create a cadence that is careful and deliberate, that takes the reader to an emotional depth that may be about as close to Mary’s state of mind as any 21st century novel can get. It is a remarkable achievement.
Toibin’s Mary is not a “believer,” as one would be called today. She is a distressed mother who watched as her son became a strange man who did many strange things that were sharply divisive and was ultimately killed. In this way, a human image of Mary becomes clear. Similarly, although Toibin’s story stays true to the proven historical facts represented in the Bible, he leaves room for human folly, misperception, hysteria, and illusion.
Since Mary is not portrayed as a believer, Toibin draws a dangerous picture of her — a picture that antagonizes the mental images many of today’s readers may hold dear. That is why the Author’s Note is critical. It’s almost as if Toibin feels the need to explain himself before there’s outrage from religious groups around the world. He states, “Slowly, the idea came to me that I could give a voice to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the silent woman at the foot of the cross, that I could write a novel in which she would speak” (p. 85). As a writer of Catholic descent, Toibin’s explanation is an audacious claim in itself. It begs the question, who is he to give a voice to Mary? “As a writer of fiction,” Toibin answers, “it is my job to work through silence, to enter the minds of my characters, to create voices for them, to give them a life that will matter emotionally and intellectually to others” (p. 85).
For more on The Testament of Mary, listen to this interview with Colm Toibin on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.