The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A short novella about Mary's rage and guilt concerning the death of her son. Well written but curiously slight.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 104 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780670922093

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The subject matter for Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary is exactly what the title suggests in that it relates Mary's feelings about the death of her son, Jesus, whose name it hurts her too much to even mention. It's a curiously slight offering though. Its 100 odd pages lands it somewhere between short story and novella territory. Even so, with Tóibín's excellence as a writer and the emotive subject matter, I expected to be more engaged with the story than I was.

It's not often that I feel completely ambivalent about a book, but this is one of those times. It's well written certainly but fails to really engage the reader - or at least this reader. It's as if Tóibín is writing on auto-pilot (or given the subject matter perhaps that should be auto-Pilate).

At the start, it's unclear if Mary is under arrest or just being guarded for her own safety after the death of her son. Told in her voice throughout, there is the expected rage and sadness and most of all a sense of guilt about not failing to intervene in her son's final hours for her own safety. She recalls the story of Lazarus who, once her son had raised him from the dead, seems to be living life as not much more than a zombie with people afraid to even look at him, before describing the last time she saw her son at a wedding, to recalling the events of the crucifiction.

And that's sort of it really. Of course you feel for a mother who has to watch her only son die in such a terrible way but there is so little of her relationship with him previous to this that she has to tell us rather than show us everything.

The small aspects of the human side don't add a lot to the story that we all know. Like many other authors Tóibín has picked up on the fact that female roles in the Bible tend to be given rather dismissive treatment which he rectifies to an extent.

There seems to be a bit of a surge in faith-based fiction at the moment. This is neither the best, nor the worst of them.

Our thanks to the kind people at Viking for sending us a copy of this book.

In part my lack of conviction about this book might reflect that it follows hard on the heels of a book that really does provide an engaging and fresh look at the same subject: The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman which I very strongly recommend.

Booklists.jpg The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is in the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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