Archive for April, 2014

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by COLM TOIBIN

 

testament of mary

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty

I love that quote, and this book contains a few others that are nearly as good. Unfortunately these highlights are rare.

A famous irish author chooses to re-write the new testament in the voice of the catholic church, and ireland’s, number 1 saint – the mother of jesus. A courageous decision Sir Humphrey might have called it, but given it was shortlisted for the booker in 2013 i guess you could say the gamble worked. It didn’t work for me however, or the other bookgroupers.

we didn’t hate it, but its a very hard book to love. In a way its because toibin is too good. he has to make a lot of choices in this book. he has to invent mary, what is she like, what does she want to say, what did she see, and how did she interpret it. His choices are brave at every turn – to a fault. he never makes an easy choice so the mary we read, the mary of toibin’s creation could very well be real but she is not likeable, wise, insightful or entertaining. he is scared, reclusive, resentful even bitter. In modern terms we would say she is depressed.

This makes the book hard work and quite frustrating. All the famous, and spectacular, events are related in the flat drone of a very sad old lady, and we don’t understand why she is like that until the end. Some months after witnessing the crucifixion, and narrating us through it from a mothers perspective, she says

I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that or lessen what it did to me.

At this point you can see why some people think the book is a literary triumph for toibin. he is so truthful, so determined to imagine a version of the ageing, reflective mary that could be real, he makes no attempt to give us a good read. Instead he gives us a trauma survivor. A woman living in a police state, who has been in hiding and in fear of her life for years, who watched her son mutilated in public and stood by doing nothing. A woman who is now visited by people determined to make him their saviour rather than her son, and worst of all, that may be the choice he himself made – to abandon her.

you can see why she might be depressed, but it doesn’t make the book fun to read. as one bookgrouper said its a bit like cormac macarthy’s the road in its relentless bleakness.

It did raise an interesting idea for me however. there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of trauma survivors, from places like rawanda, sudan, congo, afghanistan that may have been through similar things – forced to ┬ástand by while their loved ones are hacked apart by one crazy regime or another. Some of these people end up in places like australia as refugees, where we expect them to become normal happy citizens. having read this book i think its a miracle that some of them do.

 

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April 13, 2014 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment


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