The Testament of Mary
“Beautiful prose, tangible emotion, and a constantly lingering sense of dread make what should be a fairly short reading experience an intense and disturbing experience.”
The narrator never names her son but there is never in doubt about who he is: “The boy became a man and left home and became a figure dying on a cross.”
She is an old woman living in exile in Esephus, in modern day Turkey, recalling the events that led up to his death.
Few characters are identified by name. Two men, one of whom was with her at the crucifixion, visit and write down her recollections.
But Mary dislikes them, is frightened by them, and is convinced they only want to hear the things that fit into their own particular agenda and ignore those details which don’t consolidate an already agreed-upon narrative.
One of her main recollections of her son’s execution is of a man who fed live rabbits to an eagle in a cage, the bird of prey unable to stretch its wings while pecking out the eyes and plucking out their entrails of still-alive of the rabbits even though it was not hungry.
Mary focused on these side details to distract herself from watching her son dying on the cross, but the men who record her memories are not interested.
She is plagued with guilt because she fled the hill where her son was being executed before he died as she was in fear for her own life.
During her flight she and one of her companions had the same dream: that her son rose from the dead. But by that time she is a fugitive far from Jerusalem.
When the men who visit her call her child the “son of God” she is confused. Her son’s father was her husband, and he is long dead.
She distrusted the “misfits” who had gathered around her son, and when she learned that he was being watched by the authorities—the Temple elders and the Romans—she tried to persuade him to come home with her to Nazareth and lay low. But he was lost to her.
“. . . time created the man who sat beside me at the wedding feast of Cana, the man not heeding me, hearing no-one, a man filled with power, a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as he learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep.”
She constantly recalls feeling like an outsider in the midst of events unfolding around her in which her son is playing a central role and into which she is being dragged, putting her life in danger as well.
While hiding in a house in Jerusalem filled with his followers she learns that her son has allowed himself to be taken into custody and that his followers seem to feel that it has all been planned, “part of a great deliverance that would take place in the world.”
“Everyone else knew that something was being played out for the sake of the future, that nothing mattered except the killing.”
Much of the middle part of the story—and this short novel’s most intense passages—focuses on the story of Lazarus and his sisters, Miriam and Mary.
“Slowly the figure dirtied with clay and covered in graveclothes wound around him began with great uncertainty to move in the place they had made for him. It was as though the earth beneath him was pushing him and then letting him be still in his great forgetfulness and nudging him again like some strange new creature jerking and wriggling towards life.”
Mary does not actually witness Lazarus’s return from the dead, but she does meet him on her way to the wedding at Cana.
“There was something supremely alone about him, and if indeed he had been dead for four days and come alive again, he was in possession of a knowledge that seemed to me to have unnerved him; he had tasted something or seen or heard something which had filled him with the purest pain, which had some grim and unspeakable way frightened him beyond belief. It was knowledge he could not share perhaps because there were no words for it.”
This is a short, but dense novel that by its subject matter will probably offend some. A few decades ago it would have been banned in Colm Tóibín’s native Ireland.
But The Testament of Mary lingers after it has been finished, turned down at their corners; sentences, paragraphs or just a few words underlined to be returned to and mediated upon.
Beautiful prose, tangible emotion, and a constantly lingering sense of dread make what should be a fairly short reading experience an intense and disturbing experience.