Completed 2/4/2015, Reviewed 2/24/2015
Note: This is the review of literary fiction. It is not SF, fantasy, or horror. I hope to integrate more non-genre fiction back into my reading lists.
I really enjoy science fiction, and literature in general, that deconstructs, satirizes, and/or reimagines theology, religion, and mysticism. It speaks to my struggle with the darkness, ignorance, and hostility that organized religion has perpetrated upon humanity, demonizing not only dissenters but even those who ask the simple question of why we continue to perpetuate haughty, oppressive structures from ideas that themselves were iconoclastic, inclusive, and simple. At the same time, I enjoy reading theology, mysticism, and contemporary research on things religious. One of my favorite non-fictions is “Alone of All Her Sex” by Marina Warner, a history of the myths and cult of Mary and how that has helped perpetuate the inferiority of women. “The Testament of Mary” is a fictional look at the mother of Jesus, demythologizing her. It explores how a very human widow would cope with a dangerously famous son, his agonizing destruction by the powers that be, and the cult that forces her to continually relive her grief. It’s a difficult and astounding read.
This book is a little like Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which put to question the dual nature of Jesus, extrapolating on what it means that he was fully human. “Testament” asks us to peel away the layers of myth of Mary and presents us with an angry, bitter woman being protected and harassed by the followers of Jesus, pressing her for every detail of his life and death so they can write the gospels. Mary’s memory is not of pious Hollywood scenes with swelling inspirational music. She remembers the unnaturalness and implication of a resurrected Lazarus, the fear of having a publicly dissident son, and the horror and desperation of the crucifixion. But rather than have to relive this again and again, she’d rather simply disappear.
“Testament” reads like a monologue. In fact, it originated as a monologue stage play and then adapted into a novella. It’s short, but very intense. Using this form, Tóibín drops you into the character of Mary and doesn’t let you off the hook until the end. It’s a masterful piece of short fiction. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything like this. I read it in under three hours, during which I probably breathed deeply only two or three times. Afterwards, it took me about an hour to relax, and I needed a few days before I could begin my next book.
I have to admit that it took me a long time to figure out how to review the book. I couldn’t get past the single sentence, “Wow, that was intense!” I spent a lot of time reading other reviews in Goodreads. I was shocked by the negative reviews that complained about anachronisms, like the use of shoes rather than sandals, as if they were mutually exclusive, as if Hollywood got ancient footware right. And of course there were the people who couldn’t deal with the concept of fictionalization at all, unless it’s “Ben-Hur” or “King of Kings”, which I might add took their own liberties. Though even in the 1961 version of “King of Kings”, there’s the awesome short tense scene where Jesus is called away from making a chair and Mary says, “The chair will never be finished”. To understand the concept of this book, extrapolate from that tenseness.
But from all that, I was able to begin putting my own thoughts together. I liked the concept; it’s right up my alley. I liked how he makes a distinction between his fiction and the fiction of the gospel writers, that their purpose wasn’t to write history, but to convey a message. To use contemporary slang, it’s really meta. I liked the details of Mary needing control over her surroundings to give her some sense of control over her own life. And I liked the thought of Mary being a real human, with real human reactions, not just a pieta or a Madonna painting.
If you’re afraid of getting your iconography dirty, this book is not for you. If you’re open to a relentless reflection on a human anguish, then you need to read this. It’s beautifully written and won’t leave you unmoved. Five stars out of five.