The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Website)
Genre: literary/historical fiction
Setting: 1st century Ephesus
I read it as an: audiobook
Narrator: Meryl Streep
Source: my own collection
Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (10 Sept 2013)
Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
A first person narrative of some of the events of the alleged life of Jesus, told from his mother Mary’s point of view. The premise is that she is now an old woman waiting to die, and so is writing down her recollections in a factual manner. She is not amused by her son’s choice of friends, who she says are mostly men who can’t even look a woman in the eye. Nor is she impressed with the people who believe her son is the son of God. She definitely has no time for that. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospels, who are her keepers as well. She doesn’t think they are ‘holy disciples’ or that her son’s death was ‘worth it.’
I dig this Mary. This Mary has absolutely zero fucks left to give, and she’s not shy about telling you so. She points out the many times she was dismissed or treated badly by her son or others. She is not the gentle, meek, retiring woman portrayed over the centuries in so much art and literature. This Mary has Things to Say™ and she is not happy about the way events played out, nor with the players involved. Here, she is a grieving, bitter old woman, and I don’t blame her. If someone killed my child in any way, let alone in a horrifically brutal way, I’d be bitter and pissed off about it, too. And would likely have a whole lot more to say about it than she did here. Or else I’d be dead because I would attack the people and get it over so they’d kill me.
I am as atheist as they come and find this a refreshing and realistic portrayal of Mary, totally divorced from centuries of veneration that has been heaped on her. Not that I believe she existed any more than Jesus did. But if she did, I can see her ending up like this. This Mary obviously loves her son but she doesn’t spare him any criticism, either. She doesn’t think he is divine or that he is the son of God. She thinks he didn’t treat her all that well once he was grown. She didn’t like his friends and thought they were a bunch of misfits. She felt that her son’s preaching was dangerous, bizarre, and delusional. She will not tell her keepers stories about her son that weren’t true just so they could fit them in with the narrative they created about him. She simply refuses to play. I loved her, and I felt horrible for her.
Meryl Streep, of course, did an exceptional job narrating this story. She imbues her voice with age, fatigue, bitterness, grief, everything you might expect to find in a woman who has lived far longer than she really wants to, burdened as she is with sorrow and anger.
I loved this book (novella, really) and recommend it highly. However, if a reader is really religious and isn’t inclined to view Mary or her son in any way other than how they are represented in the Wholly Babble, then it might be better to skip this one. It is NOT an irreverent or heretical book, but it pulls no punches and undermines the whole point of Christianity. Which is why I loved it, naturally.