Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of Mary is one of those books which leave a bittersweet taste in the reader’s mouth at the end. This has nothing to do with religion; it has everything to do with the sadness that seems to prevail from beginning to end.

The author tells in a beautifully flowing first person narration the story of Mary, or at least some of its parts. Mary in this novella looks like a woman bathed in sorrow. As she recounts the events that lead to her son’s death and their aftermath, she seems weak, secretly angry and quite bitter. And she doesn’t seem to have a shred of sympathy for Jesus before he met his end and his followers. In her eyes they were all part of a conspiracy that she doesn’t name but is quite clear for everyone to see.

Her memories are vivid, “I remember too much;” she says, “I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.”

Nothing escapes her but sleep. She cannot sleep because the recent events have shaken her world; her son’s miracles, the fact that he publicly renounced her, his arrest, trial and crucifixion. But these are not the things upset her the most, it’s her visitors; two of his disciples that come to her time and again, trying to shape her memories into their own liking, determined to convince her that their version of the events is the true one.

“No,” she wants to cry out loud, “no, I wasn’t there until the very end,” but they pay no attention to her, they’ll write the story the way they want it, no matter what. She’s sick of men, and especially these ones: “…all my life when I have seen more than two men I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty…” In a way she’s also disappointed of her son, who, she feels has wasted his life for no reason at all: “It was not worth it,” she says, his death served no one.

Her words, her thoughts may sound heretic, but they simply come out of the bleeding heart of a grieving mother: “There are times in these days before death comes with my name in whispers, calling me towards darkness, lulling me towards rest, when I know that I want more from the world. Not much, but more. It is simple. If water can be changed into wine and the dead can be brought back, then I want time pushed back. I want to live again before my son’s death happened, or before he left home, when he was a baby and his father was alive and there was ease in the world.”

But these days are gone. Now even her own story doesn’t belong to her, even her life depends on the charity of others. The only thing she’s left with is her memories, and a bitterness that just doesn’t let go of her tortured soul.

A tale beautifully told in exquisite prose by a master storyteller.

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