There are at least two ways of contextualising Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary. It is the latest in a succession of recent works on Jesus and his times. English translations of the then pope Joseph Ratzinger’s volumes Jesus of Nazareth (2007), Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (2011), and Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012) offered a homiletic reading of the gospels, as might be expected. Philip Pullman published his fable The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ in 2010. Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel, whose first long section ‘Miryam’ imagined the perspective of Jesus’ mother, appeared in 2012. Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which tends to the novelistic, and whose sales soared after its author’s Muslim background was attacked on Fox News, was published in 2013. The much missed Geza Vermes’s final book Christian Beginnings appeared in 2012. Toibin’s realisation of Mary is the newest addition to this series of inquiries, more or less fictional, into Jesus and his environment.
The other context, naturally, is Tóibín’s own writing, from The Heather Blazing (1992) through The Blackwater Lightship (1999) to, perhaps most relevantly, his osmotic absorption of Henry James’s 1890s, in The Master (2004).
To begin with that last named novel, this was Tóibín’s strongest imagining to date of the hidden lives of his characters. His particular gift, on display from the start, had been to allow occluded feelings and family secrets, even those one keeps from oneself, to emerge slowly through the tenor of the writing. These buried truths, which help constitute whole lives, were all the more emotionally convincing for taking their time to be established through many indirections. In The Master, Tóibín’s own style grew Jamesean in places; and it was perhaps natural for him to feel drawn to James’s habit of profound implication.
The Testament of Mary is therefore yet another attempt to get inside a historical character, and, by deep imaginative sympathy, to bring to light that character’s felt experience. The intuiting of Mary’s suffering over her son’s execution is strong and merits respect, although in some ways Alderman has done this better. The overall approach is sceptical. Mary is no virgin mother and she does not believe in her son’s resurrection. She is not present at Pentecost for the Holy Spirit’s descent, as the author of Luke-Acts avers. She ends her days in Ephesus, where this woman of undoubted Jewish sensibilities becomes a devotee of the many-breasted Artemis of the Ephesians. The liberties taken here are obvious; but the empathy is real. Mary is seriously imagined, and this brief work will be widely felt to have its own claim to truth.
As reported in The Guardian very recently, this is in fact ‘the most slender work to be shortlisted’ for the Man Booker prize. The judges’ chair, Robert Macfarlane, said it had “sought in some way to extend the power and possibility of the [novel] form”. Another judge, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, called it “a short novel”. But these comments aren’t convincing; The Testament of Mary is a novella. Importantly, its brevity is a formal response to the dearth of information about Mary; in that sense, Tóibín’s novella is more tactful and reticent than Alderman’s attempt.
In a Guardian column, Tóibín bemoaned the fact that “history, under the new plans for education in the Irish Republic, will no longer be compulsory in schools”. Future Irish citizens will “have in their heads nothing other than some myths and prejudices about the past”. This won’t do: “[f]or students now, no grand narrative is needed; indeed, it seems to me, none will be tolerated or believed”.
The Testament of Mary participates in, and displaces, this historiographical scepticism. In the Irish Republic – still in many cultural respects a Catholic theocracy – “myths and prejudices” about Mary are embedded. Tóibín exposes, and would sever, this taproot of Ireland’s mariolatrous imaginary. A modest yet radical work, the Testament ambitiously demythologises theocratic Irishness, restoring a people’s identity to the simply human.