If I can’t believe in God, I do believe in fiction. Reading a novel is an act of devotion that will slowly, I hope, build an empathetic understanding of people and experience beyond my own. I can learn how it might feel to be a young woman recruited for MI5 in 1972, or why I might have murderous urges towards my spouse while living in a declining suburb in Missouri, or how it was to be Cromwell with a sunburn after a day of falconry with King Henry VIII. Organized religion may be one way to find an understanding of the world, but reading fiction is mine.
When I set out to read The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a short novel about Mary the mother of Christ, it was the author’s interest in the subject that caught my attention. Tóibín’s mother characters often don’t do what you might expect. In Mothers and Sons, his collection of short stories from 2006, each story is about a mother and son relationship, but focuses on their distance whether it be physical or mental. A recurring theme in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, his book of essays about writers and their families, is how to define a life outside the confines of the family fold. “Mothers get in the way of fiction,” Tóibín said to The New York Times, “they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” He is more interested in a person than their role in a family.
When you close your eyes and picture the Virgin Mary, what do you see? There are countless possibilities, a woman with a halo of light around her tilted head, a cloaked figure with tears of blood or a vaguely burnt apparition on a slice of toast. Your answer will depend on how you were raised, the galleries you have visited, or the books you have read. Regardless of how you’ve come across her, Mary is part of a story you’ve been told. She is a powerful symbol of motherhood. And she is not only a mother, but the mother of Christ. Your view on him will probably dictate what she means to you. In Tóibín’s hand, Mary is more than her role as a mother or a symbol. Instead, she becomes the most interesting of creatures: a credible human.
How does Tóibín see Mary? This is the story of a woman living out her last days in exile with the excruciating memory of watching the torture and crucifixion of her only son. To read this book is to see, move and feel through Mary. While her thoughts and feelings are elegantly, yet simply, laid out, the author purposefully avoids description. He has said that this is to allow the reader to enter the character’s spirit and mind, “It’s first-person intimate rather than first-person singular.” In his hand, Mary is no longer a symbol. She is not defined by her son, but has feelings and thoughts of her own.
The novel is shaped around Mary telling her story of the crucifixion to the writers of the gospel. They are working on the book that will become the Bible, but Mary’s story is not what they want to hear. They poke and prod for a different version. She won’t bend. Plagued by her remorse over her lack of action during the crucifixion, she thinks back to when her son was a child, “beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs” and tries to reconcile this memory with the powerful leader. She sees him carrying the cross to his own death. He is clubbed. A large spike is driven into the soft point in his wrist. As she watches, she becomes completely overwhelmed in knowing that her son is more defenseless than when he was a baby in her arms.
Mary does nothing to stop the crucifixion. Fearing the political persecution of her friends and family she stays back in the crowd. She does not identify herself as his mother, nor try to pull his body down. “I was there…you say that he redeemed the world,” she says of what she saw to the writers of the gospel. “It was not worth it.”
Tóibín’s masterstroke in The Testament of Mary is to give the reader a way to believe. People who take things on faith often don’t require proof, but a follower of fiction can be a slightly more awkward creature. In trying to gain an understanding of the world, a reader looks for fiction that feels true. Only the very best writers can navigate the choppy waters of a reader’s conviction and this is the point where writing becomes an art rather than a skill. A novel exists in the space of what we know and what we don’t. It defines the gap between what we think and how we feel.
Tóibín reinvents the story of Mary by opening up this gap. We know the Bible. In Tóibín’s telling, the writers of the gospel were attempting to tell a story about redemption. When they hear Mary’s version of the crucifixion, they discount it and go on to write about a resurrection instead. We feel a mother who has lost her son. Tóibín’s intimate approach makes Mary feel more credible and human than the other versions of her we’ve come across before, whether they be in a crèche, a church or on a piece of toast. To her, the crucifixion was a horrific tragedy and this intuitively feels right. No parent could see the torture and death of his or her child in any other way.
Tóibín has set himself a similar task to that of the writers of the gospel. He is retelling story that shapes how we see the world around us. He has fit his story in between what we know and how we feel. The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true. Or this is how someone who has faith in fiction might read the book. And I am a believer.