This post is part of a weekly series in which Atlantic staffers offer their takes on the six novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Proclaimeth the book jacket: “[T]he docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone.” Well, that’s ambitious. Colm Tóibín says he writes in a chair that’s “one of the most uncomfortable ever made,” one that “causes pain in parts of the body you did not know existed.” It’s not hard to imagine that The Testament of Mary would grow from time in that chair.
Testament is Mary’s first-person account of watching her son turn from a child into a revered godhead. It is recorded years after the crucifixion, when disciples are visiting her regularly, eager to collect tidily divine stories as fodder for the Gospels. Testament is Mary’s actual version of events, the more earthly side of the story that her visitors refuse to write down. Mary relates some of Christ’s most well-known plot points—the raising of Lazarus, turning water to wine, the crucifixion—all the while waxing nostalgic on simpler days, back when her son wasn’t The Son. By her account, Christ’s most well-known acts were far from providential, and Mary herself isn’t as demure as myth would have it: Halfway through the book, she threatens two disciples at knifepoint.
Tóibín’s premise, then, is to turn to Christ’s mother to get the straight story. Unlike the pure, meek woman found on votive candles, this Mary is empowered, and above all, honest. She flees the crucifixion scene before her son has died, and does so, she confesses, because it was “her own safety [she] thought of.” Tóibín seems to strive for emotional fidelity: How might it actually have felt for Mary to witness her son’s trajectory? To Tóibín’s Mary, Christ and his disciples aren’t the varnished figures you’d see in a da Vinci painting; instead, they’re awkward, slightly unruly outcasts—more like a group of gangly, cargo-shorted teens who skipped the Homecoming dance to go cliff-jumping at the quarry.
The way Tóibín pursues this fidelity, however, isn’t so straightforward. The voice he provides Mary with is curiously modern—dark and filled with heavy, articulate language. She is prone to phrases like “the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze” and “they were figures of substance, grandeur, immense dignity,” and she’s surprisingly self-conscious about her role in correcting a myth that she sees is in the making.