Colm Tóibín, a writer of great skill and fearsome literary reputation, has been longlisted for the Booker Prize for a third time. The Blackwater Lightship and The Master both made it to the shortlist. The Testament of Mary is a slim volume of well-crafted prose on a subject too vast for an entire library. Several libraries. Tóibín may win this Man Booker, but for me it’ll be like when Margaret Atwood won for The Blind Assassin after she didn’t get it for The Handmaid’s Tale, or Cat’s Eye, or Alias Grace. Or when Graham Swift got it for Last Orders when he didn’t get it for Waterland. A wonderful writer wins a prize they deserve– but not for the novel that deserved it.
The voice is that of Mary, Jesus’ mother, grown old with her memories and resisting the attempts of those who care for her to embroider her story, or to tell it as they want to hear it. She tells her reader (but who? Who is she telling, and how is she able to write, as she cannot read? These are important questions) what happened on the days leading up to, and away from, the Crucifixion. A mother losing her child – her only child – is a terrible thing, regardless of culture, background or period of history. It contains an automatic fascination for a reader, flying as it does against the natural order, with no respect for religious belief. But Mary is not a marginalized figure in the Christ story. Her motherhood and her suffering are central to it, wherever you read it. Mary does not need Tóibín; what drew him to her is a question only he can answer.
This story has been retold before, over and over again, thousands of times in thousands of ways, for thousands of purposes. This is no reason not to do it again – quite the opposite. But it is a reason to bring something new to the party. In Tóibín’s version, what’s new is a plot twist. But the twist consists of Mary doing something (don’t worry, I won’t say what) that sits awkwardly with the character he has created. If Tóibín is seeking to remove Mary’s story from the noise, then it must stand apart from it. Yes, we are shown Mary as a woman, not a saint. But Mary as a woman, not a saint, is central to the Christian narrative. Her suffering as a mother is how believers connect with the human aspect of the Resurrection story. I needed more from Tóibín the storyteller to connect with a revelation that, even in the context of his own novel, lacked substance.