‘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.