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The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 81 pages, $19.99

All told, Mary utters only two hundred words in the Bible. We hear from her three times in Luke, at the Annunciation and the Visitation, and when she remonstrates with the twelve-year-old Jesus after he has gone missing in the Temple, and once in John, when at Cana she tells Jesus that there is no wine and then tells the servants to follow his instructions.

No person is closer to Jesus during his time on earth, and few are quieter. Mary is the exemplary source, sign, and figure of what it means to contemplate, from close by, the mysterious joy and suffering and fresh hope of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

The Testament of Mary is acclaimed Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s effort to imagine what life was like for Mary, before and after the Resurrection. His effort is graced by some affecting lines and images that confirm his status as a leading figure in contemporary literary fiction, best known for his imaginings of historical figures (as with Henry James in The Master) and for his explorations of mother–son relationships (as with books like Mothers and Sons).

Tóibín writes plain fine prose marked by occasional flights of lyrical beauty. His storytelling at its best is driven by his attention to his characters’ many-chambered inner lives, characters themselves marked by melancholic casts of mind fixed on distant memories, doing their half-best in the meantime to get on with life. Had he brought this responsive and generous sensibility to bear upon an imagining of Mary in her later years, the result might have been a quietly lovely contribution to two thousand years’ worth of artistic representations of one of the Bible’s quietest major figures.

Unfortunately, we have instead a pretty good women’s studies creative-writing project, circa 1973. Giving a voice to those whom History and Patriarchy and their fellow bully pals have silenced, Tóibín retells the gospel in willfully mundane terms, from the perspective of an aged Mary without faith. Confiding in us, she looks back on her life’s many dramatic events while arguing over their crucial details—principally, “what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed”—with the scribes trying to capture and recount these for Christ’s earliest followers.

For Tóibín’s Mary, “the fierce catastrophe” on that hill wasn’t part of God’s plan for his only son. Instead, it was the tragic and unnecessary end result of her only son’s reckless and charismatic life as a teacher and cult leader. Jesus “could have done anything,” he was so talented, his mother proclaims, lamenting that he decided to surround himself with “a group of misfits . . . men without fathers, men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or somehow had grown old while they were still young. Not one of [them] was normal.”

Nietzsche would have picked this novel for his book club. After all, by his lights, Christianity thrived in the Roman Empire because it appealed to losers—to the lowly servants, weak slaves, etc.—who found in the story of a God willing to so abase himself a consoling message and sanctifying example to follow, which they did with an energy fueled by otherwise insatiable resentment of their strong and confident rulers.

In Tóibín’s handling, Mary is herself brimming with resentment, mostly directed at the evangelists who pressure her to tell a version of Christ’s life story that affirms their own. Under the guise of caring for their savior’s mother, they have set her up in tacit house arrest. “I am being cared for and questioned softly, and watched,” she tells us. Glowering and confined, she has time enough to look back on her life and that of her son. She’s doubly disappointed.

She is, in fact, a fatalist. This sensibility is nowhere more apparent, in this otherwise aggressively anti-miraculous rendering of Christ’s life and works, than in Tóibín’s decision to leave intact Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. Why? Because it’s an event that Mary witnessed firsthand that fills her only with the certainty that while “he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it.”

Meanwhile, her son’s first public achievement, at the wedding feast at Cana, frustrates and worries her dreadfully. “Woman, what is it to me and to thee? My hour is not yet come,” Christ says, according to John, when she tells him the wedding party has run out of wine. Where Jesus asks that prophetic and relational question, Tóibín’s Jesus ignores his mother’s concerns (as Tóibín describes them) about his safety, responding, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” He then performs a banquet-table trick with some stone containers full of water-pretending-to-be-wine that he “transforms” into wine . . . and the crowd goes wild.

Mary knows better, of course, and despite being hurt by Jesus when he ignores her entreaties, she keeps trying to warn him that these showy gestures are attracting the wrong kind of attention. She is attuned to the concerns of the religious and political authorities and tracks the spies they send. But Jesus doesn’t care; the attention from all the misfits and losers is just too much, too good.

In its ideas, The Testament of Mary is rigid and reactionary; in its art, loose and flaccid. Its governing premise is a lurid funhouse mirror of the gospels: Everything we think we know about Mary through Scripture is wrong, which means that everything that we think we know and that we believe about Christ is also wrong.

Mary flees from the crucifixion before it’s over; she wields a kitchen knife against the disciples when they try to force her to agree to their version of Christ’s death and resurrection; she has no faith whatsoever in Christianity or Judaism but finds consolation in worshiping the many-breasted Greek goddess Artemis; her vision of the afterlife is more accurately a vision of a twenty-first-century urban farmers’ market: “a city . . . filled with plenty, a marketplace laden with fish and fowl and the fruits of the earth.”

This easily dismissed material aside, Tóibín does generally follow the biblical narrative of Christ’s life. As such, in time, Jesus is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. And here, in spite of his roaring ideological engines, Tóibín terrifies us. As Christ is bloodily fixed to the cross, his mother notices that “each of the nails was longer than my hand”; while he hangs before the jeering crowd, dying, she thinks of him “as a baby, as part of my flesh, his heart having grown from my heart.”

Watching him in his final agony, she notices the horrific ordinariness of the activities around them: “horses being shoed and fed, games being played, insults and jokes being hurled, and fires lit to cook food, with the smoke rising and blowing all around the hill.” She seeks momentary distraction from her son’s suffering by studying the curious doings of a bird keeper with an oversized raptor stuck in a cage. The man passes the time watching the crucifixion by casually plucking rabbits from a sack and feeding them to the snapping, vicious predator, who picks them apart without ever finishing one off.

Eventually, Mary tells us, “the cage became half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds. Twitching with old bursts of life. And the man’s face was all bright with energy, there was a glow to him, as he looked at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty.”

Tóibín imagines this from whole cloth, and he does so with success because the event and images intensify the infernal moment of the crucifixion, making vivid and concrete fallen man’s perverse pleasure in the destruction for destruction’s sake of innocent life. That is the kind of productive license writers can take with sacred stories, the kind of story Tóibín could have told, when the storytelling effort is born of a freedom ordered—and indeed enlivened by the challenge of being ordered—to the realities of tradition, Scripture, teaching, and belief.

Randy Boyagoda is chairman of the English department at Ryerson University and author of Beggar’s Feast, a novel. He is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus, to be published in 2014.