Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (Picador 2012)
The Book of Rachael wasn’t completely satisfying as a novel, but it painted a convincing picture of what it may have been like to be poor or outcast or female in Jesus’ times, and entered convincingly into a world view where tales of miracles could be true without being true as we understand the word.
The Testament of Mary has different fish to fry – my trouble is I can’t tell what those fish are. There are passages that are pretty well straight retellings of incidents from the Gospel of John: the raising of Lazarus and the ecce homo. Other familiar scenes – the crucifixion, the miracle at Cana – are recast in ways that in effect claim that the Gospel is lying. For most of the book I felt I was reading notes towards a novel, something that would be fleshed out once a bit more research could be done, and a few crucial decisions made: is Mary’s son a charlatan followed by desperate misfits, and if so how does that fit with his bringing a corpse back to life? why are the Romans and ‘the Elders’ intent on killing him and all his followers, and in that context why does the head Roman try to save him? Why have Mary flee the scene of the crucifixion before the actual death – might there be a less crude way of saying that the Gospel of John isn’t historically accurate?
I suspect that the heart of the piece is in something Mary says to the unnamed man who explains to her that Jesus died to save the world: ‘when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’ I read this as an emphatic repudiation of a 1950s Irish Catholic world view, and I go, like, ‘Whatever!’
It’s not a novel. It’s not an informed engagement with the gospels – it seems to assume, for example, that John’s gospel claimed to be a historical rather than a theological document. It’s not effective as polemic, because the thing it opposes is presented as arbitrary and fanatical. I don’t know what it is. Maybe Colm Toíbín felt that it was important to show his colours in the current struggle between fundamentalism and science, etc. OK, it does that – but I’m surprised the commissioning editor didn’t return the manuscript with a note: ‘Needs more work.’