The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of Mary‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Tóibín will probably be the only book longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize that I will definitely be able to read before the shortlist is announced in a few weeks time.  The story is told from the point of view of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is still grieving for her son many years after his death and does not believe that he is the son of God.  Her testament in her old age focuses mainly on her son’s last days before the crucifixion and what happened afterwards.

‘The Testament of Mary’ is a short 100 page novella which can easily be read in one sitting.  I often admire authors who write short works as it is usually better if they know when to stop instead of rambling on purely for the sake of it.  Tóibín’s understated novel ‘Brooklyn’ about a young Irish immigrant who moves to New York in the 1950s is a fine example of this.  However, I am undecided about ‘The Testament of Mary’.   On one hand, the prose is lyrical and subtly written.  Rather than getting too tied up in all of the theological controversy surrounding the themes of the book, I chose to read it primarily as a portrait of motherhood and from that perspective, the book is still very powerful and affecting.    On the other hand, I still felt there was something uncomfortably restrained about it as though something was holding Tóibín back despite the provocative subject matter.  I think this was partly because ‘The Testament of Mary’ was originally written as a monologue which means it still comes across as more of a character study than a fully fleshed-out story.  And yet, in spite of this character-focused structure, I still didn’t find Mary’s voice particularly authentic and I never really connected with her.

Will ‘The Testament of Mary’ make it on to the Booker Prize shortlist?  I have no idea.  I haven’t read any of the other longlisted books to compare it with yet and as I have said before, this decision is ultimately down to the preferences of the judges which nobody has control over.  However, although it is tautly and eloquently written, this was not a book that really stood out for me and I wouldn’t be particularly disappointed if it failed to make the cut.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

  1. Personally I think the book is too short of length to win the Prize. The monologues of Mary were magnificent, much better suited for the theater. Unfortunately the play was a bust in New York.

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  2. I loved Brooklyn too. Not sure whether to bother reading this now or not, have seen such mixed views.

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  3. Just about to start reading this! I loved Brooklyn but ex

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  4. Jesse

    Have you read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho? I was disappointed with this books after reading all the great reviews. I won’t say why, in case you haven’t read it, but it fits along with your comment on shorter books that tell a succinct story.

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  5. Thank you, now know not to try it! I too thought I needed to give one of the longlist a go and am reading “A Tale for the Time Being.” It’s intriguing; am waiting to see where it goes…

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  6. Wow, what an interesting perspective on an old story. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it more because the idea sounds fascinating.

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  7. Why doesn’t my copy look like this? Mine is white and gold, no picture!

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  8. I made the mistake of starting with ‘The Kills’, all 1000 pages of it! So I will probably not get round to more than one before the short list comes out especially as I’m up to my eyes in reading for Summer School at the moment. I will read this at some point though because I love Toibin’s work, particularly ‘The Blackwater Lightship’.

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    • Yes, I’ll admit that the length of ‘The Testament of Mary’ is the main reason that inspired me to pick it up as I knew I would definitely be able to finish it! How are you going with ‘The Kills’? I am thinking about getting a copy as it sounds intriguing but I need to know if it is worth it given that it would be such a massive investment of my time!

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      • Well, I’m reading it because I work with Richard House and I don’t want to run into him in the corridor and have to admit that I haven’t read it:) However, I was about three fifths of the way through when I had to pause for Summer School and I was intrigued enough to know that I will go back to it when next week is over.

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  9. I liked it a lot. Definitely too short – he could have expanded it to include more of Jesus and Mary’s life. However, I’d rather be left wanting more than to surfeit on mediocrity, which happens all too often.

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  10. I read this 3 or 4 weeks ago and enjoyed it – although I think I know what you mean about it being a bit restrained. It is so far the only of the Booker longlisted books I have read too – although I have Harvest by Jim Crace on my kindle TBR.

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