The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

I love December, I really do. The dark wintry nights lend themselves to snuggling up on the sofa with a good book. The days are full of Christmas planning and shopping – the only shopping I enjoy except for book buying. It’s a twinkly, sparkly month culminating in that most perfect of days, Christmas Day itself. For me and mine, it’s a family day first and foremost, full of pleasure and good cheer. In amongst all the present-giving, eating, playing and watching Doctor Who there’s not much room for thinking about the family upon which the Christian festival itself is based. This year I may just take a moment to ponder the lives behind the legend.

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary is a slim volume. As the title implies it is narrated by Mary, as she tries to understand the events surrounding her only son’s crucifixion and her own actions and reactions. It is not a straightforward recounting of the steps towards a necessary and determined sacrifice. Rather it is a series of memories, ambivalent and devoid of greater significance. It’s a study of a mother’s love and one of how legends are created.

That Mary loves her son is undoubted. There is a beautiful vignette of her spending the Sabbaths with Jesus and Joseph together as a family. These were special times, to be savoured and appreciated, when her child was still just that – her child. It was a happy childhood, and she was proud of her boy, happy to let him leave home and hopeful for his future. Mary hopes for a normal future for him, certain he will find work and do well. She was not envisioning his future as the Son of God. I’m not sure that she ever thinks of him as the messiah, nor ever truly believes this to be true. She is uncertain about the purported miracles, wary and scornful of the cast of misfits that hang about Jesus. She despises their arrogant and overbearing behaviour and lecturing tone. But she loves her son.

A theme that caught my full attention was that of legend creation. Mary is pressed for her account of her son’s life and death, but her memories are not enough. Those who seek to document His life are not interested in her real reminiscences. They have already constructed how it is to be told; what they want is for her to confirm their version not tell her own. She is of little use to them, this mother who lost her son.

Some parts of the novel are deeply moving. The crucifixion scene itself made the agony real, both the physical pain suffered by Jesus and the emotional anguish Mary felt. Her heart breaks. Her devotion to Joseph is quieter, but also beautifully written and so human and real. At these moments I felt connected to Mary. I was not always so engaged in her story, sometimes a distance opened between narrator and reader and the differences in time and place were apparent. As a whole, my enjoyment of the book has deepened over the couple of weeks since I read it. Mulling it over and letting it flit around my thoughts has increased my appreciation of the writing. As Mary walks to the ancient temple to find solace in the pagan god Artemis I am reminded that we look for consolation where we can, to soothe the hardships of life. Mary the woman deserves a moment of my time this Christmas.

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