The shortest novel shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the crucifixion story from the perspective of a mother (His mother) has, unsurprisingly, caused some controversy and even been branded as blasphemy. Tóibín has received death threats (which he said that he printed out and saved so future generations would know how some people still behaved in 2013). As well as the obvious challenge to Christianity, the novel also presents a more subtle, perhaps unintended, critique of patriarchy and casts doubt on the value of any narrative.
Originally a dramatic monologue (and now a play as well as a novel) The Testament of Mary is a single (female) voice speaking out of turn; Mary tells her story as simply and as honestly as possible but the anger, grief and guilt are inescapable. Her descriptions of her son as a child are moving because we know how the story will end, and her version of the crucifixion itself is made harrowing through mundane details that focus the reader’s attention on the physical suffering rather than the spiritual significance. This is a mother who watched her son grow up and grow away from her, then watched him tortured and left to die slowly. She is told it was necessary to redeem the world and she responds as a mother: “It was not worth it.”
She talks of her protectors (Christ’s disciples) who come to write down her account of events but grow frustrated when she doesn’t say what they want or expect. She explains how they alter details that undermine the bigger story and how they come to believe their own versions. She recalls things very differently but she also admits that she is constantly tempted to replace unpalatable reality with fond memories and comforting dreams:
“it will not be long before that dream, so close to me now and so real, will fill the air and will make its way backwards into time and thus become what happened, or what must have happened, what happened, what I know happened, what I saw.”
The novel questions the reliability of written history (religious or secular) and it also reminds us of how female voices (and therefore female stories and experiences) have been lost, suppressed or simply shouted down over the centuries. As Mary says “They will thrive and prevails and I will die.” Mary knows that telling the truth won’t change anything but she speaks “simply because [she] can”. Her struggle suggests that perhaps all narrators and all narratives are unreliable, particularly when they try to tell the truth.