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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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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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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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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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on 24 July 2013
I bought this after reading it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and because the blurb intrigued me. Unfortunately it was very disappointing.

Like the author, I am a lapsed Catholic and I greatly enjoyed Phillip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Both books share the concept that Christ was a fascinating man, but just that - a man - and Christianity is based on embellishments to his story made by his followers. This concept isn't responsible for the negative review.

I did not enjoy Toibin's writing style at all and found myself frequently having to repeat passages (I'd say 'paragraphs' but there are irritatingly few) as my mind had wandered elsewhere. Mary is not a very sympathetic character, and the fact she questions her son's divine status despite him raising a man from the dead after four days isn't convincing. Her voice belongs to the enlightened and unsuperstitious 21st century, not Palestine, 20AD. Her tone is relentlessly morbid and gloomy, as well it might be, given her horrific loss, but this does not make for an engaging narrator.

We also do not get to know Christ at all. He is simply not fleshed out enough, and when he is mentioned comes across as a pompous fool. No loving, grieving mother would describe her son in such a way. There is no hint of the incredible charisma he must have had to inspire such a frenzied following. Toibin has him cruelly dismissing his mother while at the same time 'radiating incredible light'. It is not legitimate.

There are strong points. The crucifixion is well imagined - rather too well, if you are squeamish - and Christ's reaction to what he is undergoing is far more plausible than the quiet, serene death the New Testament would have us believe. He doesn't utter brief nuggets of wisdom to his followers, just shrieks unintelligibly, which given the suffocating pressure on his chest is all he'd have likely managed. Had Toibin built up Christ's character and his relationship with his mother more effectively, it could have been one of the most harrowing passages ever written. It is undoubtedly disturbing, but only because the notion of any mother and son undergoing such an ordeal is beyond horrific.

Mary's refusal to name half the characters - the visiting disciples, her guardian, her own son - is both irritating and confusing, and detaches you even further. The novel's brevity also detracts; had Toibin written more character and relationship development then the book would be more satisfying.

It's not the worst thing I've ever read, however I found it utterly joyless. Not enrichingly joyless, like Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, just dreary and uninspiring, and a waste of a decent concept.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 October 2012
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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This short novel tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she enters the last phase of her life. In poor health, and aware that she hasn't much longer to live, she reflects on the life and death of her son. She is alone (it seems that Joseph - like Jesus himself, never referred to by her by name - has died) apart from two shadowy figures (apostles?) who appear to be writing the story of Jesus's life, and trying to make Mary's (rather different) version concur with their own.

There is dreamy quality to this strange little novel. The writing is beautiful, and (unlike some other reviewers) I found that the odd pieces of dialogue taken from the Bible fitted in amazingly well. But at the end of the book, I was still wondering what the author was actually trying to say. Was it that the truth had been adapted to fit in with the Old Testament prophecies (this is already a well-worn theory)? As for the characters, they never really came to life (for me), and Jesus was not especially pleasant or charismatic, the crowds he attracted seeming more interested in the magic-tricks aspect of the miracles than the man himself. Although Mary witnessed the raising of Lazarus and the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, she doesn't seem to see that her son was so very out of the ordinary, and while she was very distressed to witness the crucifixion, she wasn't as grief-sticken as I would have imagined. Altogether, I felt as though I were witnessing the story "through a glass darkly"; I couldn't see it clearly.

As a Christian, I wasn't in the least offended (this has been suggested), but as a reader, I was more puzzled than engaged. It does seem odd that a novel of this length has reached the Man Booker shortlist, but then that particular prize has always been controversial. I feel that this novel will attract some very polarised reactions, as well, and I shall be most interested to see more reviews.
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on 9 March 2015
I have long been a fan of Colm Toibin's novels and looked forward to reading The Testament of Mary as I imagined it would give greater substance to and understanding of the character of Mary who appears only infrequently in the Gospels thus leaving much scope to embellish her humanity. Alas, I was bitterly disappointed and could not help feeling that Toibin's main purpose in writing this novella was to cast the Christian faith in an unfavourable light; and in so doing he showed little if any respect for what is already known about the life of Mary, which admittedly is not a lot, and the novel is completely at odds with the spirit of the Gospels.

In this novel Mary gives her account of some of the more well-known events in the Gospels i.e., the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus turns the water into wine and the horror and agony of the crucifixion. While it is easy to empathise with Mary's frustration, fear and anger that her Son does not live a more normal and low-key life instead of attracting attention and danger, there are other aspects of Toibin's narrative that are quite frankly, hard to swallow. So Mary is not a Christian; she does not believe in her Son's mission and his redemption of mankind was simply "not worth it"; but the real problem for me was Mary's behaviour at the crucifixion.

In this version of the greatest story ever told Mary flees the crucifixion before her Son has died and shockingly confesses she did so because she feared for her own safety and it is here that I parted company irrevocably with Toibin's depiction of Mary. Colm Toibin just does not grasp the huge and overwhelming motherlode of Motherlove which is the deep instinctive knowledge that makes heroines of the most abject cowards, the sure and certain knowledge a mother possesses that makes her aware without a shred of doubt that she would stand between her child and a killer, take a bullet, suffer torture as so many mothers have done throughout history. So while much has been written about Toibin's attempt to "humanise" Mary he has really attempted to dehumanise her by portraying her as less maternal than almost any other mother in the history of mankind.

Michelangelo's world-famous marble sculpture, La Pietà, in St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican shows Mary cradling the body of Jesus after the crucifixion and it is one of the most moving, heart-breaking and haunting images I have ever looked upon and it conveys very effectively the grief and loss of the young mother as she tenderly gazes on her Son's corpse.

Also, while Mary's age is to the best of my knowledge never actually stated in the Gospels, it is implied that she was very young when she gave birth to Jesus and yet her voice in Toibin's novella is of a cranky, bitter and angry old woman while the face in La Pieta is of a remarkably young woman and this would be more in keeping with the social mores of the time. Toibin might be using Mary's narrative to get across his own message.

There is no question that Toibin writes the most beautiful and deceptively simple straightforward prose but I was very disappointed at the huge holes in Mary's character as she appears in The Testament of Mary particularly as writing from a woman's perspective is one of Toibin's great strengths. It is hard to comprehend a mother who would not remain to receive her only son's mutilated body from the cross, to hold him close and finally to ensure for him a decent burial. I imagine Toibin is influenced by not having experienced the joy and huge responsibility of fatherhood.

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on 29 November 2013
It was slow initially but became more interesting as it opened up. Mary was a mother tormented by her son's actions - tormented by lack of understanding of what he was doing, a fundamental dislike of his 'friends' and a mother's natural frustration at being helpless to assist her son when she could see and understand the dangers he was getting himself into. No different to modern day life apart from the context of the global impact that this particular son would have. A sad time for Mary who was a frightened soul from the time Jesus started to work his miracles through to her death, effectively having to live her latter years in fear and hiding. A very sad lady. Colin Toibin's understanding of human nature is graphically illustrated throughout the book - the wedding feast, during Christ's journey to the the cross, describing various undesirable characters - and this feels as though it could almost be the author's viewpoint being described by the Virgin Mary. An interesting read.
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on 8 January 2014
This novella is utterly beautiful. Mary is drawn as a woman who is exasperated and bewildered by her son's actions, and who resents the apostles who insist on continuing to visit her after his death, not with a view to looking after her but in order to try to persuade her to back up their version of events. The description of the raising of Lazarus and its aftermath chilled me to the bone - I'd never thought to question why, if Lazarus' resurrection was such a marvellous thing, we never hear of him again. The author's explanation is awful (in the true sense of that word) in its simplicity and perceptiveness. Anyone looking to criticise this book as being blasphemous will be disappointed; equally, anyone hoping for scandalous 'revelations' will have their hopes dashed. This is a mother's tale, pure and simple. I shall return to it time and again.
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