Colm Tóibín, Testament of Mary


I was supposed to go to hear Colm Tóibín speak at the Blue Metropolis Festival on Thursday night but I got side-tracked by bronchitis. After facilitating three days of training accompanied by ample wheezing and coughing, with a voice going from croak to squeak, I just couldn’t drag myself to the talk and I went home to go to bed early.

I finished the book last weekend and I was waiting for the talk to write my post so I could talk about both the book and the talk, and I was expecting a “wow” moment and was looking forward to sharing it… so I am a bit disappointed I had to miss that and this post will be limited to my comments about the book.

 Tóibín writes about the Virgin Mary has an old woman living a quiet life in Ephesus where she has taken refuge after the death of her son. In her testament, she recalls events in her life and that of her son and explains the meaning she attributes to them in contrast to what others have interpreted them to mean. It is obvious from the point of view that is presented that Tóibín does not position Mary as a believer nor as a worshipper of her son as the Son of God… There is much doubt as to the purpose of his actions and in the end, it feels very much like she resents her son’s convictions for taking him away from her. She also gets annoyed with people coming to her hoping for enlightenment when she feels she has little to offer.

The book starts with this:

They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not any more.

This notion of being hunted, under surveillance, or in some kind of danger pervades the book.

And Mary at the end of her life says “I move now between the things of this world that are precise, sharp and close by, and some bitter imaginings.”

She recollects events such as the wedding in Cana and the raising Lazarus from the dead. She describes the crucifixion in detail. In the description of how her son was nailed to the cross, she describes the nail as being driven “at the point where the wrists meets the hand” rather than going through the palm of the hand which is how I have most often seen pictured in religious art. A quick search of the Internet shows that this may have been the most likely way to do it.  Mary then tells of fleeing the site of her son’s crucifixion and not being there when the body was taken down, unlike what the official gospels have told. She fled in fear for her own life, not knowing where she was going and ended up in Ephesus to live with the absence of her son and husband, an old woman who depends on her neighbors’ kindness for some of life’s necessities.

The book is written as a monologue with a slow rhythm that befits the meandering thoughts of an old woman who searches for solace in spite of what she perceived to be a major failing as a mother: having abandoned her son in his hour of need.

I tell the truth not because it will change night into day or make the days endless in their beauty and the comfort they offer us, we who are old. I speak simply because I can, because enough has happened and because the chance might not come again. It will not be long maybe when I begin again to dream that I waited on the hill that day and held him naked in my arms, it will not be long before that dream, so close to me now and so real, will fill the air and will make its way backwards into time and thus become what happened, or what must have happened, what happened, what I know happened, what I saw happened.




Tóibín, Colm.Testament of Mary, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2012.  eISBN 978-0-7710-8416-4


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