The Man Booker Prize, launched in 1969, aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the year’s best novel written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. Dorothy Johnston delves into one of the shortlisted works of 2013–Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary.
At just over a hundred pages, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is more of a novella than a full-length novel. Whether or not the Man Booker judges took this distinction into account when they chose it for their shortlist is hard to determine, but in my opinion the novella is the perfect form for the tale Tóibín has to tell.
Typically, a novella revolves around two or three main characters, while minor characters form a chorus of sometimes harmonious, sometimes competing voices. The protagonist, Mary’s son, who is unnamed, is seldom described directly and seen almost exclusively from her point of view. At the outset, Mary makes it clear that this is to be her story; her son often seems a distant figure, full of contradictions, while others’ claims, both for and about him, clash in the background. The fact that many of their lines are well-known, to Christian readers at least, heightens the choral effect.
At the end, when Mary is old and waiting for her own death, visitors, who are writing their own accounts, weary her with their repeated exhortations.
He was the Son of God, the man said, and he was sent by his father to redeem the world.
By his death, he gave us life, the other said. By his death, he redeemed the world.
Mary’s response to this is, “‘I was there…I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’”
Tóibín can assume that his readers—anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the Christian faith—will know the story of one man’s rise to spiritual power, the miracles that he performed, the believers he gathered round him, his crucifixion and his resurrection. These events can be taken as a starting point.
But for all the fidelity to compression that is a hallmark of the novella, and its mythic structure, it is Mary’s humanity that shines through this small book. She speaks to us across a space of two thousand years in the voice of a singular, yet ordinary mother, a woman at last able to set down her doubts and confusions.
The Testament of Mary is rich, lyrical and profound. Mary’s voice circles around immense cruelty and suffering, but does not embrace them. By the end of her life, her son’s torture on the cross has become part of a darkness that was always there. Mary does not mince words when it comes to the savagery and stupidity of men, but she knows that the world they inhabit is her world too; she can no more cut herself off from it than she can convince herself that what happened to her only child did not really happen, or happened to somebody else.
I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but it was so contorted in agony and covered in blood that I saw no one I recognised.
Concerning her son’s divinity, Mary keeps not so much an open mind as a mind following the path of her own observations, her capacity for bearing witness, and her dreams as well.
Tóibín’s style has been called dry, but I didn’t find it so. Each paragraph seemed to me carefully and lovingly constructed, with an allowance for the whole range of human emotions. No word is out of place.
Tóibín had this to say in an interview after his first Man Booker shortlisting for The Blackwater Lightship in 1999: ‘The presentation dinner, where you have to wait, is terrible. I’m not sure I’d like to go through it again. I’ve done that now. It was good but that’s enough of that.’
I’m not sure if the procedure has changed, and the nominees are now informed ahead of time. The Master, Tóibín’s novel about Henry James, was shortlisted in 2004. Hopefully for The Testament of Mary it will be third time lucky.
Dorothy Johnston is the author of eight published novels, including three detective novels set in Canberra. The fourth, which completes her ‘Sandra Mahoney Quartet’ will be published this year. Her website is dorothyjohnston.com.au