The Long and Short of It: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

BOOK: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Format: Hardback, courtesy Simon Clark (on loan)

Weighing in at just over 100 pages (something akin to between 30 000 and 40 000 words I think), The Testament of Mary was the shortest contestant on the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist, and is in fact more of a novella than a novel.  While in comparison to this year’s winner, that might seem dwarfing, I have come to realise that the length of a book, its form and structure, are as much a part of the story itself. 

The Testament of Mary tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion from the point of view of his mother, Mary, who is under the watch of a few sullen guards.  She tells her story from a point of grief struck awe, not understanding what has happened or why.  The words of Monty Python spring to mind: “He’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy!”  As Mary observes her son’s influence and popularity among the people of Jerusalem, and hears of his performing miracles, she begins to feel detached from him, and her pain serves as a sense of foreboding.  When Lazarus, the beloved one, is risen from the dead, only Mary seems to see the anguish that he feels at being drawn back from a place where he was at peace into the tumultuous, material world.  She suspects that Jesus has not done this deed to ease Lazarus’s suffering, nor that of his sisters, but in fact to soothe his own naysayers.  His deeds help him to grow in popularity and he becomes the figurehead of a rebellious youth movement that causes unrest among the Jewish community.

But the extent of Jesus’ changes can only be seen truly at a wedding where Mary attempts to warn Jesus about the negative attention his actions have attracted.  She tries to get him to flee with her, and he asks her who she is, and why she leans so close to him.  He is so far gone from her, she wonders if perhaps he believes his own hype.  To this reader, the character presents as a kind of pretentious, hipster Jesus pulling out party tricks like turning water into wine.

This book is told rather than shown but in a way that plays with image and scene so that it feels as if you are being guided in your own remembrances.  It is more of a political tale than a religious one, but it’s multiple layers of interpretation raise the question of whether the book was intended to put forward a sceptical, atheist point of view or not.  It took me a while to get into, but I would rate this one 3.5 out of 5.