Colm Tóibín’s has written about mothers previously in a 2006 short-story collection ‘Mothers and Sons’ and, as he often does when playing with the nature of identity, he is inclined to present odd and different perspectives on a role.
The Testament of Mary carries this a considerable step further with an interpretation of what is considered by many to be the mother of all time – the Virgin Mary. His opportunity arises as the historical Mary is a very sketchy presence at best with all the usual story-line variations we know to expect from scripture.
Tóibín does not set out to attack or destroy anything and this is certainly not a polemic work. He simply presents an alternative Mary giving an interpretation of her life and experiences which she has not fully understood and which sometimes anger her. Certainly this is the case of the son for whom she is mourning and about whom she is being pressed to give an account that agrees with others who were part of the group in which he moved. Jesus to her is “my son”, “the one who was here” or “the one you are interested in” – never by name.
The scene is set in a safe house at Ephesus where she was hidden by Saint John and her memories of her life with Jesus, already confused, are being regularly pressured by those writing what will become Gospels to see past events as they do.
What Mary offers us is the well-known story in its basic elements, but, in each case, alternate explanations are at least hinted at and there is a growing gap in understanding between Mother and son and his followers, the “misfits, fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers”. A good example is the story of Lazarus who is apparently returned to a life that is more of a living death. Similarly, the marriage at Cana and a number of other events are seen either from what Mary observed or her interpretations of what she is told.
Without major departures from the Gospel storylines, the Crucifixion is seen in a different light with the pain of her son’s death being overcome by the need to escape ‘the strangler’, a darkly mysterious figure that represents the threat of conventional power to the emerging events.
This is a very real, understandable and very human Mary that Tóibín has given us a chance to experience, a Mary who keeps house and considers domestic matters, a Mary who would prefer that life unchanged. I, for one, found her initially somewhat confusing but my appreciation grew as I listened to her voice and relived these stories as she might have experienced them.
Certainly a fresh insight.