The Testament of Mary
by Colm Toibin
Despite being brought up in Scotland in the Congregational church (loosely: separatist, non-conformist and which I renounced at around eleven or twelve), my knowledge of Jesus’s mother is sketchy to say the least. Partially informed by the large Catholic family who lived next door, where images of the blue-robed, doe-eyed virgin proliferated, and my own Sunday school nativity (again, she is blue-robed and played by the prettiest girl in the class – never me I hasten to add), she is a far cry from the figure of the distraught and exasperated mother that Toibin paints here. So, it was with awe that I read this thought-provoking novella.
Mary arrives at Cana to attend the wedding of her cousin and the place is buzzing with the news of the raising of Lazarus from the dead: “The talk was of nothing except power and miracles” - and, as she was known to be Jesus’s mother, she is closely watched. She attends the wedding with trepidation, irritated by the attention her son (she never names him) continues to bring to himself - turning water to wine doesn’t go unnoticed. When she tries to reason with him he replies "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" His arrogance is as palpable as Mary’s sadness.
Mary spends much of her time trying to evade the authorities with the help of her son’s followers who advise her to return to Nazareth (from where she relates her story) but she knows he is to be crucified and she wants to be there. She tells us, because of fears for her own safety, how she saw his execution but had to flee shortly after so wasn’t able to tend to his body - and how she plays the scene over and over in her mind.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY is a bold novella written, as ever, in Toibin’s beautiful prose, which gives us Mary’s point of view turning her into a living, breathing, person with whom any mother would empathise.
Published by Penguin – 104pp
Read our interview with Colm Toibin.
A one-woman stage version of this Booker-nominated novella comes to the Barbican Theatre in London as part of its 2014 season.