First, ignore the cover, which makes it look as though Colm Tóibín’s new novel is the usual sentimental rehash of the familiar Virgin Mary story. I have no idea how Scribner’s could have gone with this cover. Or why Tóibín allowed them to do so. Because The Testament of Mary is quite the opposite. It’s bitter, it’s angry, and it’s profoundly moving.
What Tóibín has done is what I would have loved to be able to do in my book Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography. In fact when I finished that book, I did play with the idea of writing a gospel of Mary. I’m glad Tóibín’s done it instead. Far better a writer than I, he has made her so achingly human that even as you read, mesmerized, his clear, cold-eyed prose makes you want to weep. I have no idea how he does this, but I’m glad he does.
He writes in the voice of Mary as she looks back, her own death nearing. You could say it’s the voice of a disillusioned Mary, but this woman has never had any illusions. Instead, she’s transcendently clear-eyed.
Among many other things, this short, almost terrifyingly lucid novel is a brilliant commentary on how “history” is constructed. Mary watches in dismay as the disciples set about creating their own version of her son’s life and death. They “interview” her as a matter of obligation, but can’t hide their frustration when she refuses to endorse their manufactured memories. She sees them as almost threatening presences, enforcers of their constructed view of things. She feels “the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief,” along with “their efforts to make simple sense of things that are not simple.”
But what carries this novel above all is the sheer beauty of the writing — the extraordinary voice, the lambent clarity of it. You find that you want to read it as slowly as possible. You start marking passage after passage. Like this on the first page:
I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need of smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears.
or this, which is kind of perfect for this time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere:
Now that the days are shorter and the nights are cold, when I look out of the windows I have begun to notice something that surprises me and holds me. There is a richness in the light. It is as if, in becoming scarce, in knowing that it has less time to spread its gold over where we are, it lets loose something more intense, something that is filled with a shivering clarity. And then when it begins to fade, it seems to leave raked shadows on everything. And during that hour, the hour of ambiguous light, I feel safe to slip out and breathe the dense air when the colors are fading and the sky seems to be pulling them in, calling them home, until gradually nothing stands out in the landscape.
Like that light, this novel is extraordinary. It has a luminous quality that I can’t quite explain. But if the sentimentalization of faith sometimes makes you ache for the disillusionment of atheism, read this book.