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3.8 out of 5 stars
The Testament of Mary (Unabridged)
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 23 October 2013
This is a short novel, and for me every single word is as it should be. I cannot praise this book highly enough; the voice of Mary is so clear, so profoundly truthful, and the story she tells, known and unknown, is compelling in every way. I read this book in a day, and I would have read it in one sitting if I didn't have coursework to do; still, I could barely put it down. The narrative is soft I felt, despite the cruelty, the brutality. In my mind there were pictures of the heat and the ochre hills and the olive trees, muted and yet there is also the pain that Mary feels, and it is real. There are passages which we have heard versions of, and the pure pleasure of matching Mary's memory to the other stories we've been told, to find out how she saw it, experienced.
I strongly recommend this book, as it is a beautiful read.
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57 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2013
This is a subversive book which would have had its author burned at the stake in those times when the Church exercised serious temporal power.

It consists of some reflections by Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she approaches death in a foreign land.

She touches on Jesus's happy boyhood, how he then matured and eventually turned into a bit of a cold fish with delusions of divinity. She reports on some of his miracles third hand. The only one at which she was present was the water to wine at Cana, and she seems to harbour some doubts about this. The raising of Lazarus, assuming it happened, turned out to be a bad joke. She didn't hang around for the end of the crucifixion saga as she was in fear of her life. So no pietà. And the guys, who are now harassing her for stories from the past, seem to be writing major works of fiction to which they expect her to add her name.

All in all a serious debunking job.

But it is refreshing in its sadness and depression as it makes you think. You begin to wonder what was it really like, particularly when you start to think of people as real people rather than the sanitised and unreflective versions which have been handed down to some of us.

This Mary is at the other end of the spectrum from the Italian breastless plaster-cast statues that were found in most of the churches of my youth.

She is a poor tortured soul, looking forward to relief from this mortal coil. But she is still a loving mother and has a serious backbone made of steel which is not paraded unnecessarily.

A short, well written, provocative book. I'm currently on my second read.
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75 of 86 people found the following review helpful
This short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother's love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be, perhaps, the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn't stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

As Jesus' followers encourage her to embellish her story to tie in with the legend they are beginning to create, Mary feels that she must tell, even if only once, the true story of her involvement in these momentous events. We see her cynicism and doubt about the miracles attributed to her son; her dislike, contempt even, for those followers who seem intent on feeding his ego, who seem to be provoking his martyrdom to serve their own ends. And most of all we come to understand and almost to share her guilt and fear.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary's driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none - this story is first and foremost about humanity. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 January 2014
Why is it we never consider what it must have been like for Mary, during the events that led up to the crucifixion and during the crucifixion itself? It must have been the most terrifying and devastating experience - seeing at first-hand her son sowing the seeds of his own destruction and then, close up, seeing him endure the most horrific death. How could her own life have not been destroyed by that? This short book deals with these questions and sets Mary in the context of the police state of the time, surrounded by spies, informers, betrayers and supporters. To survive she had to carefully consider her every move and rely on her intuition. It also deals with the likely gloss of the official versions of the crucifixion in the gospels: In this book the rhetoric and the reality are far apart. So it's a really interesting perspective on a story we know so well and usually take as given - it prompts our thought and reflection. The problem for me was that although I loved the concepts and structure, I did not emotionally connect with the narrative voice of Mary herself, and in this sense this potentially very powerful book was disappointing. I have never read anything by Colm Toibin before, so I am not sure how well he usually writes in a women's voice or whether he has ever narrated as a woman before - somehow in this book he didn't quite pull it off.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 March 2014
This is not a story as such, with a hero or plot, more a stream of consciousness. Mary is at the end of her life and being pestered to tell her story. The trouble is that whoever is recording it doesn't want the version that she is prepared to share. We never know who these men are, but can only assume that they are some of the disciples who want a record of a miracle worker who is the Son of God. This is not the way Mary remembers her son's life, and in fact the woman who emerges from this tale is definitely not the pallid Virgin Mother usually offered to us. I enjoyed the way Toibin uses language, although I can see that some might find it mannered or pretentious. He has bravely offered a view of a very human Mary, who is appalled at her son's followers and the way that they manipulate his story and dismiss her version of the truth. It certainly does not comply the teachings of the RC church, but personally I have no problems with dogma being challenged.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2013
What a shame! This novella is far below the par for the quiet master Toibin, though that still leaves him better than the vast majority of his literary contemporaries.

Toibin portrays Galilean Mary as a simple mother, completely dismissive of son's visionary claims (though she witnesses some of his miracles). She is fatalistically aware that the prosaic truth which she knows will be totally distorted by his crazy, dishonest disciples. In the current era, this is a conventional type of debunking. That wouldn't matter if it had been much better realised.

The problem for me is that the dominant emotion, from the first paragraph to the last, is fear. There is no tenderness, love or any sense of connection between Mary and her son - or anyone else, apart from a low key friendship with Martha and Mary. This leads to some stilted scenes, such as when Mary tries to persuade her son - his name is never mentioned, to telling effect - to flee from Cana to hide in her house. The absence of dialogue between the two is deliberate but, I think, a cop-out. No insights or depth of personality colour the blank non-exchange.

Mary comes across as a passive, emotionally distant, small-town mother, who is nevertheless preternaturally aware of how her whole culture is dominated by oppressive men. Her voice is consistent and quietly affecting - but she is not interesting and is not remotely Jewish. She seems to be modeled on an old-fashioned Irish mother, mutely suffering in the name of something she does not understand.

In one of several highly unlikely twists, Toibin has Mary buy a statue of the Roman Goddess Artemis, to whom she prays. The worst section - in terms of narrative tension and authenticity - is the headlong flight of Mary with Martha and their feckless keeper after the crucifixion. At one point [page 88], Mary says that 'we did not kill anyone', but - in the interior context of Toibin's story - it does not seem at all likely that any of the three were capable of such violence.

Nevertheless, there are some strongly realised scenes, such as the tale of poor Lazarus rising from the dead and plainly wishing he hadn't; and Mary's isolation and helplessness at the crucifixion.

Many critics heaped praise on Toibin for this effort - but I couldn't disagree more. To see him at his brilliant best, read his superbly under-stated 'Brooklyn' or his subtle portrait of Henry James, 'The Master'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2014
This short book is the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. It covers a short period of time, from when Jesus was becoming well known in the area for his teachings until the time of the crucifixion.

Tóibín has put himself in the mind of Mary. You feel her anguish and fear as she sees her son become popular and followed by huge numbers of people, to the point where he is a threat to the authorities and the vested interests of the Jewish faith.

You can see why it is controversial, he puts her at odds with what jesus is doing, she tries to stop him and lead him to safety at the wedding. She is not seen as compliant to his teachings and accepting this is Gods will.

I really liked the intensity of the book. Being so short, there is barely a wasted word. This is a literary response to the icon of Mary, and he does try to make her more human. Does he succeed? I am not sure, but it does make you think.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This a small book, only just over 100 pages. I've never read any of the author's other works before, but thought I would read this after reading The Liars' Gospel (Naomi Alderman) - just seemed appropriate somehow.

This is a simple story, the tale that Mary tells after the death on the cross of her son. Mary tells how two men come and take testimony from her of her son's life and death, and they write it down, but she knows they are distorting it. It's a very personal tale that we hear from her, and one that a mother would tell of her son whom she could not save. A nice, easily read book, and one that lingers. I found myself wishing there was more; a longer story, a bigger book. This is more of a novella, really, and one that has impact, but it seems a shame there is not much more to be read; because there is certainly much more to be told.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 November 2013
The basic idea of writing Mary's view of the life and death of Jesus was great and the portrayal of her as a real practical woman of her time (as opposed to some plaster saint invented by the Church as an adjunct to its Man & God dogma) was very attractive. But apart from the fact that she visits the temple, the book entirely misses the point that she was a Jewish woman whose religious belief and domestic routine would have been interwoven. I suppose I was hoping it might have been more in the mould of The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman - a superb story of Jewish women 2000 years ago.
I bought it because it was shortlisted for the Booker but I suspect had it been the first novel of an unknown it would never have seen the light of day. Shame really.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Thank you to the first reviewer, Fiction Fan, for an excellent review alerting me to this, which I found a profound and unsettling read, which I am very ambivalent towards.

It is BECAUSE of the ambivalence, not despite the ambivalence, that I must 5 star it, as it does what the best literature does, challenges and at times unsettles the reader, forcing them to think, question, re-evaluate, or even if just in a small way, look at something freshly, as if for the first time.

Here, Toibin looks at Christ, and some of the later events of his life, but through the eyes of his mother. Toibin's Mary is far from the Gospel depictions. She is a very human, pragmatic, strong and self-reflective woman, and the thrust of Toibin's viewpoint is that the reality, and the story told in the Gospels, is markedly different. In a sense, he suggests it is all 'spin' with the Gospellers, for their own reasons, involved in mythologising. Everything is open to question, including the Annunciation, the validity of the miracles and the political need for a Messiah.

And yet, and yet..........this is not just a debunking of Christianity, there are unanswered questions, for Mary herself, and of course for the reader. IS this a possible way in which it all happened? But can we explain everything in our lives away by what is rationally explicable, as far as the rationality of the times allows? Certainly, Toibin suggests a rationality here which accords with a 21st century perspective, but leaves unanswered the Lazarus story, unsettling Mary and indeed the modern reader.

This is not just a book however which might be of interest to fervent atheists - or indeed to Christians - it is a tender exploration into the heart of us, examining the flawed and fearful choices we make, the things we can't forgive ourselves for, the weakness that leads us away from courageous acts - and the painful ambivalence of parenting. There is a subtext here of a relationship between Mary and her son which has gone wrong, a dysfunction, a son who has paradoxically become less loveable as he has moved out of the sphere of his parent's values into a fierce certainty of his own rightness that is a little like arrogance. Particularly if his 'rightness', is not.

To add to all this thoughtful, unsettling, challenging focus of The Testament of Mary, there is a writer at work here whose ability to weave the art, the craft and the creativity of writing into a whole, is consummate. This book is short - but it packs density within it. There is nothing flabby or overwritten, and I got the sense that Toibin was mastering the push-and pull of a book's journey, the 'keep the reader wanting to turn the page but know when to slow the reader down to make them stay and reflect this', astutely, and beautifully.

I shall read more by this writer
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