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What Not to Read–Colm Toibin’s “Testament of Mary”

Leave it to the publishing industry to crank out another shot at orthodoxy just before one of the major Christian holidays. (Honestly, did The Satanic Verses see print just before Ramadan?) Just in time for this Christmas, we have the promotional blitz around Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. Apparently, if we’re to suspend disbelief for Toibin’s work, Mary was not watched over by John as an act of love, as the Bible would have us believe. Instead, the apostles, knowing they had a good thing going with their whole Jesus-themed cottage industry, had to keep Mary under wraps. They couldn’t let her be going around and telling stories that contradicted their official versions of the Jesus story. After all, we know how powerful a woman’s voice could be in the public sphere of the 1st century.

And what a travesty that they kept this woman cooped up. Her voice, uneducated and probably illiterate, was nonetheless marvelously lyrical:

There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not anymore. I am cared for and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep.

One doesn’t require a lot of imagination to recognize the agenda behind Toibin’s so-called art. If only those “hungry and rough” males hadn’t been allowed to hijack the whole Christian enterprise, if only the softer, gentler voices of Mary and other women had been allowed to emerge, then maybe we could have avoided (insert whatever aspect of Christian history particularly offends you here).

From sampling this novel, I don’t even find Toibin’s efforts to rise to the interest of The Last Temptation of Christ. In these pages, the author plays a wish-fulfillment game. He creates a Mary who can then recast and redefine Jesus and his legacy in ways pleasing to the author. As the pages roll by, that lyrical voice–and it’s not lyrical on a Faulkner level–becomes tedious. By the end of a few pages, I began to suspect that true reason the apostles kept Toibin’s Mary hidden away was to protect their world from her endless monologue.

Like most of these pre-holiday wonders, this one will probably earn its author a fair payday and then fade rapidly into the darkness of our cultural memory.

Posted in Commentary, Contemporary, What Not to Read.

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