Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

I saw a discussion about this book on a thread in my LibraryThing group.  As with just about any book written about important religious figures, there are many diverse opinions about this one.  I had to go see for myself, and was able to pick up the audio version, narrated by Meryl Streep.

On the 2013 Booker Prize Shortlist, this short (104 pages in print, just over 3 hrs in audio) powerful narrative gives us a completely different voice for Mary, mother of Jesus.  This is not a plaster saint, nor is she wearing anything close to a halo.  This is the reflection of an elderly woman, looking back on her life, wondering what happened to turn her precious baby boy into a radical rebel who was ultimately subjected to a brutal and violent death.

This is a woman who does not see her boy as the son of God, who doesn't understand the disciples (those bullies her boy got involved with), who is afraid, who is searching for meaning, and who, as she nears the end of her life, is trying to make sense of everything that happened to her son during his short time on earth.

As one might expect, Meryl Streep's reading is superb.  I actually think this is one book that is much more powerful in audio than just being read in print.  Mary is brought to us in low, at times almost catatonic, monotones.  Her dreamlike remembrances give us an insight unlike any Christians are used to in their Bible readings.  In particular, her version of the resurrection of Lazarus gives us an almost zombie-like figure barely stumbling around supported by his sisters.  Mary cannot believe her son would participate in such a quack like show of magic.  She doesn't understand, and yet doesn't question him.

At Cana, we get a very different picture from the Synoptic gospels.  In Toibin's work, Mary is not the instigator; in fact she is trying to get him to keep from making a show of himself.  At the crucifixion, which Toibin paints in excruciating detail, we feel for this woman, who in spite of her love for her son (or because of it?) does not stay to witness the end, but rather runs into hiding in fear of her life.  It is only in her later dreams that we are given the Pièta vision of Michaelangelo's statue.

This is a powerful read with many opportunities for challenging what we think and believe.  In the end, I don't think it will change any religious beliefs, but it will flesh out a marble statue.

Title: Testament of Mary
Author: Colm Toibin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
Genre: Fictional memoir
Subject: Mary's recollection of Christ's last years
Setting: Jerusalem and Ephesus
Source: public library
Why did I read this book now?  People I respect recommended it.


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