In the ancient town of Ephesus, Mary lives alone, years after her son's crucifixion. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospel—her keepers, who provide her with food and shelter and visit her regularly. She does not agree that her son is the Son of God; nor that his death was “worth it;” nor that the “group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye,” were holy disciples. Mary judges herself ruthlessly (she did not stay at the foot of the Cross until her son died—she fled, to save herself), and is equally harsh on her judgment of others. This woman who we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes, in Toibin’s searing evocation, a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone. This tour de force of imagination and language is a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed."
Review: When the long list for the Booker Prize came out, I saw The Testament of Mary and was pretty intrigued by the idea of Mary's story and what she might have had to say about her son's life and death. Having visited Ephesus and the home that is believed to have been Mary's home, this all felt like a story that really was waiting to be told by someone. The question was whether someone could tell it in a way that would feel honest and with the right tone, not fearing the backlash that might come from taking on such a character.
We pick up the story after Christ's death, with Mary reflecting on her son's life and those who she seemingly felt might have pushed and pulled him along the way. Her tale is a sad one, filled with the words a mother might speak about her lost child; however, in this case, that child is one whom she has lost in a most horrifically jarring way. Yes, he was a religious figure, but she was his mother. Her thoughts are a mother's thoughts, and we see her filled with anguish over the mortal actions and decisions surrounding her child. Mary speaks not as a mother heralding the Son of God, but as a mother concerned for a child who might have been pushed and pulled in too many directions in his short life.
I found this short novella to be incredibly moving, and an interesting tale to be told. Granted, this was a piece of fiction, and not a piece of Biblical writing, and yet the title and characters lend themselves to that immediate and strict judgment and comparison. I simply couldn't do more than listen to the story being told and consider how Mary, as presented, really felt. Wouldn't her isolation, hiding, frustration, and deep sorrow make sense to any person at this point in the story? Her lines were haunting to read, but so interestingly moving and thought-provoking. This is one of those stories that will stick with me and have me thinking for some time.