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Cold comfort in Ephesus

29 November 2013

This is a disturbing novel about Mary, says Sarah Hillman


The Testament of Mary
Colm Tóibín
Penguin Books £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT205 )

COLM TÓIBÍN writes beautifully. Nevertheless, this book will please only some of its readers. The Mary of the title is not one that is easily recognisable from biblical, church, or artistic traditions. Tóibín does not paint a picture of the meek young girl whom many have in mind as the mother of Jesus. This Mary is angry and fearful, tired, and unable to smile. She tells of the foolishness of men. The years have taken their toll.

This Mary did not stay at the foot of the cross to watch as her son died, but ran for her life, fearful that they would come for her next. Now in Ephesus, living as a near-recluse, she recalls the time when her son - she is unable to bring herself to use his name - was the centre of attention in and around Jerusalem. Her comfort is a statue of the goddess Artemis, hidden away, but providing the security of knowing she can talk to it if she needs to.

This Mary calls the disciples "misfits", none of whom is "normal". She is still visited by two of them, and, like many an older person, complains when they move things in her house. For her, the resurrection was a dream; redemption of the world was "not worth it".

Tóibín gives us an all-too-human picture of a mother living with grief. He challenges the usual depiction of Mary, and restores her humanity, but her supposed lack of faith leaves me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

The real challenge for me, though - and I was surprised that I found this harder to accept than the image of Mary - was the idea of the newly raised Lazarus's not being returned to full health, but weak and ghostlike. "And Lazarus, it was clear to me," Mary ponders, "was dying. If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it."

Shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, The Testament of Mary is worth reading, but be prepared to be made vulnerable, and perhaps even angered, as you digest this intimate picture of a woman mourning the loss of her son.

That the son for whom she grieves is Jesus is where the challenge lies; for this is not the mother of our Lord whom we recognise from of old, but a harder, more scarred human being, who faces us with her, and our, humanity.

The Revd Sarah Hillman is Priest-in-Charge of Puddletown, Tolpuddle, and Milborne with Dewlish, in Dorset.

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