3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Fear-filled and thoroughly unconvincing,
This review is from: The Testament of Mary (Paperback)
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'.