Monday, 14 October 2013

The Testament of Mary - Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Review by M

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Penguin). Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013The Testament of Mary is a short novella, my edition being only 104 pages. It is shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize and I picked it up because it was on a 4 for 3 type offer at our local bookshop. The title itself hadn't appealed to me and I was unfamiliar with Toibin's work so it wasn't at the top of my reading list. I had no idea what it was about, but, being the Booker that often doesn't matter.

The opening pages are extraordinary. A dark, menacing and increasingly brutal mood is created and there was a scene involving rabbits and a bird that I pretty much had to skip. Still, I didn't know what the story was about and it was intriguing.

And then it clicked. This made me smile but then my relationship to the book changed because I knew the story it was based upon. This was a story that had been shoved down my generation's throat time and time again at school. It's not a story I like.

Of course, this is a retelling and from a different perspective: the testament of a mortal woman who experiences pain, fear and love; who explains how some stories turn into slightly different legends. We were often asked to tell this story in school, though I suspect this particular telling might not have met favour with the teachers (today, and in the UK, many of them might be more accommodating).

The opening pages are exquisite and the final pages come close. I didn't feel the middle section was as strong and the characterisation of the son remains very aloof (perhaps unsurprisingly). Mary's voice is strong, whereas perhaps once it was weak, and it is noteworthy how the book feels contemporary yet still recreates an image of a time and society from long, long ago. Overall, I felt it was a bit too drawn out for a character portrait but not long enough to hold my overwhelming interest as a story. I feel slightly ambivalent to it overall and it wouldn't be my choice for this year's winner (though I've only read two on the shortlist).

I would recommend it to other readers though, partly for what it's about, because its short length makes it a quick read and the writing is good. It is a very accessible novella and suitable for all ages.

Publication details: Penguin, 2012, London, paperback
This copy: mine

If you like suprises when you read a story, do not read on......

The story: Yes, it is the testament of Mary, recounting the time of Jesus' crucifiction: my least favourite of all the Bible stories.


  1. I knew that The Testament of Mary was a novella, but I saw the play with Fiona Shaw (yest, Harry Potter's Aunti Petunia) last winter and it was, to say the least, powerful. She made an incredible Mary, but the play didn't go its full run. It was so intense it was very hard to sit through and apparently stayed close to the novella. Fiona brought Mary to life so well, but then she does that with all her roles.

    1. Oh my goodness, Alex, I don't think I'd be able to watch it as a play! That would be very distressing. Sounds like Fiona did the novella's Mary justic though.


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