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Testament to a different Mary

25 October 2013

Paul Vallely is relieved that Colm Toíbín's novel did not win the Man Booker Prize

I WAS glad that Colm Tóibín did not win the Man Booker Prize last week. His Testament of Mary is a bold retelling of the life of Christ through the eyes of Mary. But, for all its imaginative power, it is, in the end, an arid and reductive attempt.

As I read it, I wondered whether the author had been to the small stone building hidden in a pine forest, up the mountains overlooking Ephesus - which is where the mother of Jesus reputedly retreated at the end of her life. In its soft coniferous silence, it is one of the most serene places I have ever visited. But, if he went, the Irish novelist clearly failed to be touched by this.

His book begins from interesting questions. Why does Mary speak so little in the New Testament? Why do the Synoptic Gospels not place her, stabat mater, at the foot of the cross, as John the Evangelist does? In answer, Tóibín takes the docile dolorosa of Christian tradition, and turns her into a real woman, consumed by a grief, both tender and furious at the cruel death of her son.

In her Ephesus retreat, his Mary is impatient with the two disciples who minister to her needs, and, at the same time, try to draw from her suitable details to add to what will become John's Gospel. The problem is that her memories are of a son full of contradictions, which do not fit the disciples' desire to "make connections, weave a pattern, a meaning into things".

Tóibín has a powerful creative imagination, which is lyrical and yet bleak. His psychological insight offers telling details, such as the way Jesus claps his second arm to his chest, after the first has been nailed to the cross. His Mary is uneasy at the hysteria that surrounds her son's miracles. Tóibín has no evidence for this, but then a novelist does not require evidence - only a convincing poetic ingenuity.

Yet much of his invention does not convince. He plays interestingly with the idea that Lazarus, having passed through the doors of death, does not welcome his return to the pain of life. But there is something grotesquely comic about his zombie resuscitation.

Tóibín offers no scenes to support Mary's contention that Christ's disciples are a bunch of misfits - "fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers" - the kind of men "who could not look a woman in the eye". And he moves the wedding at Cana to the end of Christ's ministry and inverts its meaning, to no obvious purpose.

Most perversely, he has Mary run away from the foot of the cross before her son's death, in fear for her own life. This is a traducing of the courage of a woman who was forced to cradle in death the body of the child she had held so tenderly at his birth. He portrays the depth of Mary's subsequent guilt with great intensity, but reduces her to not much more than inconsolable grief.

His motivation is hard to fathom. He told the New York Times that he wrote the book, and an earlier stage version, out of anger at Roman Catholicism, as the paedophile-priest scandal reached its height in Ireland. But there is something almost adolescent about his gleeful judgement that he was "playing with fire" in the work, which prompted rosary-chanting protesters outside its Broadway theatre, with signs condemning it as blasphemy. "It hasn't been controversial," he told Reuters last week. "It isn't as though it's been burned anywhere." He sounded almost disappointed.

Had Mary really been as Colm Tóibín portrays her, it is hard to think that, 2000 years later, anyone would still be talking about her.

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