‘I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but…I saw no-one I recognised’
The Testament of Mary is a relatively short novel, especially when compared to other monsters on the Booker shortlist. It has just become very relevant again, with Fiona Shaw getting consistently high reviews at the Barbican with the theatre version. The story is a simple one and with the signifiers ‘Mary’ and ‘Testament’ in the title, a pretty obvious one at that. However, don’t expect angels, demons or any immaculate decorating let alone conceptions. It explores a snippet in time of the pain of the Madonna without her holy trappings. Mary is left broken and alone in a darkened room in Ephesus, left to consider how she arrived here. She looks back at the events of her son’s life that have led to this isolated end to her existence, visited by his followers whom she neither trusts nor respects. It ends with a stripped back, honest re-telling of one of the most glorified executions written into history.
Tóibín’s is not a depiction of a loving mother/son bond – a great gulf exists for the entirety of the text between Mary and Jesus. This separation Mary feels between herself and her son exists on a mental plane – she cannot understand his support of his follower’s belief in his god-like status and he will not adhere to her advice to flee in the face of peril. She is drawn to him as the woman who bore him, but she cannot comprehend the changes he has made to his younger self to become this worshipped figure.
The real edge to the text comes not through presenting Mary as a rational woman and her son as a delusional, egotistical maniac, but her as a witness to the unexplainable. Some of the most famous miracles occur during the text without a ‘scientific’ explanation, as it were. Lazarus is as dead as the proverbial doorpost when Jesus arrives, and Mary witnesses him risen at the famous wedding scene. But she sees a shell of a man; a ghost of the living Lazarus, pulled back from the true place he belongs, full of suffering he cannot express. The miracle is a cruelty, rather than a holy gift.
The story climaxes in a tragically honest account of Mary’s feelings and actions upon witnessing the crucifixion. Not only is her heart broken for the man she bore, flesh of her flesh, but she is full of fear. Fear for her own physical body and the pain that could be inflicted upon it. The horrific truth is, Jesus may be hers, but the umbilical cord that joined them was severed long ago, emphasising that great gorge between them – ‘despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.’ This is the great tragedy of this powerful little novel. Once Mary has chosen her flesh over his, she is doomed to die in loneliness and solitude, only visited by those who wish to use her son and his crucifixion for themselves. They wish to take Mary’s words, perverting them for their own ends; but Mary resists, keeping the horror and the true pain of what she experienced hidden from these ‘visitors’.
This is not so much a story as a snapshot of pain in that infamous life story, and one told through the eyes of that most long-suffering of women. This is a visceral novel full of bone, blood and pain. It also presents the reader with an awkward jar of social perspective, to realise that this is a story our culture knows so well, and you have never heard it before.