Friday, December 27, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

I'll be honest, I wouldn't have picked up this short book by Colm Toibin had it not made the Booker shortlist. The thought of Toibin tackling Mary, mother of Jesus, didn't exactly fill me with expectation. Praised for the minutiae, thoughtfulness and clear style of novels like "The Blackwater Lightship", his Henry James novel "The Master" and "Brooklyn" he has frequently focused on one or more strongly imagined female characters. Yet, Toibin's females have always seemed to me, despite his impressive probing of their inner lives, as ciphers in some ways, too easily fitting into Madonna/whore stereotypes. We get to know what they are thinking, but we don't believe these are women who could actually exist  - or not as Toibin shows them.

Mary, mother of Jesus, is therefore the ultimate woman who couldn't actually exist. The miracle of the Virgin birth; the obscurity of her position; and the scant information in the gospels - this provides a challenge for any imaginings of her. In "The Testament of Mary" Toibin has written this as a sort of prison memoir; Mary, visited by two unnamed visitors who are wanting her testimony so that the gospels can be written, is a dying woman, remembering the cataclysms that affected her life - not just the death of her eldest son, but of her husband Joseph. In this short book, little more than a gospel itself, she reminisces as a necessary "putting down" of the truth. In this Toibin makes some oddly reverential choices. Jesus is inviolable. He is the gospel version, without annotation or embellishment. I think Toibin is doing what Stoppard did with Rosencrantz and Gilderstern, (and other novelists have done with other characters), in telling a familiar story through an unfamiliar character. He seems torn between showing Mary as the icon of catholic imagination, and as a poor Jewish woman of her time.

She tells us she is illiterate, yet the voice Toibin gives her is in a high register, poetic in parts, vague in others. That other novel about an old woman remembering - "The Oldest Conferedate Widow Tells All" - gave us a woman of many parts, whilst Toibin's Mary, in such a short few pages remains both enigmatic, and to some extent frustrating. She both knows too much and not enough. Unaware of her son's progress - apparently without her other sons (where are they?) and with Joseph dead (when? how?) - she becomes an unwanted spectator at the wedding in Cana, or in the crowd calling for Barrabas to be freed. Yet at the same time, she seems to know the intricacies of the conspiracy about her son. The one time we see them together - at that wedding - Jesus is imperious, dressed as a king, not as the poor carpenter's son of Nazareth, and ignores his mother's presence. What is this Jesus then? Who is this Mary?

It is not without its pleasures, but they are minor ones. Mary is occasionally obstreporous, angry - and this Mary seems a little more vivid. But one can't help but think that Toibin gets less close than Monty Python when they said "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy." Mary here is the mother of the child who went away to the big city and it killed him. Her anger is palpable, understandable - and, as the short book ends with her being whisked away from the scene of his death - the scribes taking down her story rewrite it (as Toibin has) and whatever role her son has in the future, "it wasn't worth it."

What to make of this confection? It probably doesn't deserve the freight that comes with it being published as a "novel" - and particularly its Booker shortlisting. Toibin has desires on his reader, as he always has; nudging us along to see Jesus's death as not just a tragedy for humankind but for Mary - yet the Mary story is more complex than this parable. He never really reimagines her as a woman of her time; and the brief few lines about the Roman occupation seem to lack veracity. Its frustrating that the men who visit her are not named, or that even her son and has husband are so reverentially referenced. This Mary hardly feels real except in her grief and anger. And maybe that's enough. The women in "The Blackwater Lightship" are angry and unable to articulate their dysfunctional relationships; in "Brooklyn" we are given a naive woman who never quite transcends that naivety. Men are the cause of these women's pain and restrictions, and he revisits this here. At the same time, his accumulation of detail, of minor notes to explore major themes, remains here, albeit sparingly. Toibin fans might well find this compelling. Looking from a far, here we see a novelist who has found a subject that almost perfectly fits in with his limitations; and in doing so fails to transcend them. A minor book, but given its critical acclaim, a major, if not unexpected disappointment.

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