Colm Tóibín’s latest novella is as intriguing as it is mischievous. In The Testament of Mary he tells the story of Jesus Christ’s horribly curtailed life from his mother’s point of view. She never mentions her beloved boy’s name because the pain of his passing is still with her in exile in Ephesus, her last resting place. Her fondest memories of him are concerned with his childhood and adolescence, when he was dependent upon her and his also unnamed human father. She describes his time in her womb in rapturous terms, as is proper for a devout woman. The Holy Ghost doesn’t get a look-in here. The birth of this Mary’s child was an everyday wonder, not an act of eternal religious significance. Tóibín’s commonsensical Mary is possessed of many virtues, high among which is the capacity to doubt. She is instinctively a sceptic when pondering the behaviour of other people, including the men and women who besought her son to perform miracles.
These miracles – the conversion of water into wine; the raising of Lazarus from the grave – are newly imagined. The pages devoted to the sweet and gentle Lazarus are especially bewitching:
He had been unchanged by death. Once his eyes opened, he stared at the sun with a deep unearthly