Faith and Fiction: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

January 30, 2013 | 3 books mentioned 13 4 min read

coverIf I can’t believe in God, I do believe in fiction. Reading a novel is an act of devotion that will slowly, I hope, build an empathetic understanding of people and experience beyond my own. I can learn how it might feel to be a young woman recruited for MI5 in 1972, or why I might have murderous urges towards my spouse while living in a declining suburb in Missouri, or how it was to be Cromwell with a sunburn after a day of falconry with King Henry VIII. Organized religion may be one way to find an understanding of the world, but reading fiction is mine.

covercoverWhen I set out to read The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a short novel about Mary the mother of Christ, it was the author’s interest in the subject that caught my attention. Tóibín’s mother characters often don’t do what you might expect. In Mothers and Sons, his collection of short stories from 2006, each story is about a mother and son relationship, but focuses on their distance whether it be physical or mental. A recurring theme in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, his book of essays about writers and their families, is how to define a life outside the confines of the family fold. “Mothers get in the way of fiction,” Tóibín said to The New York Times, “they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” He is more interested in a person than their role in a family.

When you close your eyes and picture the Virgin Mary, what do you see? There are countless possibilities, a woman with a halo of light around her tilted head, a cloaked figure with tears of blood or a vaguely burnt apparition on a slice of toast. Your answer will depend on how you were raised, the galleries you have visited, or the books you have read. Regardless of how you’ve come across her, Mary is part of a story you’ve been told. She is a powerful symbol of motherhood. And she is not only a mother, but the mother of Christ. Your view on him will probably dictate what she means to you. In Tóibín’s hand, Mary is more than her role as a mother or a symbol. Instead, she becomes the most interesting of creatures: a credible human.

How does Tóibín see Mary? This is the story of a woman living out her last days in exile with the excruciating memory of watching the torture and crucifixion of her only son. To read this book is to see, move and feel through Mary. While her thoughts and feelings are elegantly, yet simply, laid out, the author purposefully avoids description. He has said that this is to allow the reader to enter the character’s spirit and mind, “It’s first-person intimate rather than first-person singular.” In his hand, Mary is no longer a symbol. She is not defined by her son, but has feelings and thoughts of her own.

The novel is shaped around Mary telling her story of the crucifixion to the writers of the gospel. They are working on the book that will become the Bible, but Mary’s story is not what they want to hear. They poke and prod for a different version. She won’t bend. Plagued by her remorse over her lack of action during the crucifixion, she thinks back to when her son was a child, “beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs” and tries to reconcile this memory with the powerful leader. She sees him carrying the cross to his own death. He is clubbed. A large spike is driven into the soft point in his wrist. As she watches, she becomes completely overwhelmed in knowing that her son is more defenseless than when he was a baby in her arms.

Mary does nothing to stop the crucifixion. Fearing the political persecution of her friends and family she stays back in the crowd. She does not identify herself as his mother, nor try to pull his body down. “I was there…you say that he redeemed the world,” she says of what she saw to the writers of the gospel. “It was not worth it.”

Tóibín’s masterstroke in The Testament of Mary is to give the reader a way to believe. People who take things on faith often don’t require proof, but a follower of fiction can be a slightly more awkward creature. In trying to gain an understanding of the world, a reader looks for fiction that feels true. Only the very best writers can navigate the choppy waters of a reader’s conviction and this is the point where writing becomes an art rather than a skill. A novel exists in the space of what we know and what we don’t. It defines the gap between what we think and how we feel.

Tóibín reinvents the story of Mary by opening up this gap. We know the Bible. In Tóibín’s telling, the writers of the gospel were attempting to tell a story about redemption. When they hear Mary’s version of the crucifixion, they discount it and go on to write about a resurrection instead. We feel a mother who has lost her son. Tóibín’s intimate approach makes Mary feel more credible and human than the other versions of her we’ve come across before, whether they be in a crèche, a church or on a piece of toast. To her, the crucifixion was a horrific tragedy and this intuitively feels right. No parent could see the torture and death of his or her child in any other way.

Tóibín has set himself a similar task to that of the writers of the gospel. He is retelling story that shapes how we see the world around us. He has fit his story in between what we know and how we feel. The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true. Or this is how someone who has faith in fiction might read the book. And I am a believer.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her novel The Last Neanderthal is published by Little, Brown and Co., was recently featured in The New York Times, and is a national bestseller in Canada. Her writing has appeared in the Lenny Letter, The New York Times, Salon, and The Globe and Mail. Follow her @clairecameron or read more at


  1. I started this book and had to put it down. Toibin’s depiction of Mary results in a dull and lifeless character devoid of any three-dimensional qualities. I am baffled that it is so well-received.

  2. Jack, I’m interested to know on what page you put the book down? I’d agree that at the beginning I found it hard to shake my image of Mary as lifeless, but she comes alive, which was the thrill of reading it for me.

  3. Not sure when I put the book down, Claire (it was fairly early on), but Mary seemed very mean-spririted and one-dimensional. I think I also just had a problem with the author’s writing in and of itself. I haven’t read anything else by Toibin, but I hope this was not representative of his style.

  4. Interesting, Jack. It sounds like you might not be one of Toibin’s disciples, which is fair enough. I wonder what you would think of Brooklyn? If you give it a try, I’d be interested to hear.

  5. Fierce Mary came to me / across, she crossed, the Godless sea / Of acolytes and her Son’s Son / she snorted derisively, at all and one / Tell me Mary, sing me a dream / how you kissed The Cross and refused to scream / Jesus wasn’t the Savior, come from the sky / no Resurrection, he died a lie / “I will live a life absent death / His name not once, neither, my final breath.”

    Chris Roberts

  6. I just finished The Empty Family and I’m eager to read this but I find that I have to give myself some time after reading a work by Colm. His shorter works are so brutal and heart-felt, they drain you emotionally.

    His infatuation/obsession with mothers/motherhood is something I’ve long found interesting and I’ve followed it throughout his career. Great post.

  7. Thank you for this great post. I received The Testament of Mary as a Christmas gift, but haven’t read it yet. I’ve always seen Mary’s chief virtue as her ability to surrender to the will of God — beginning with her famous “yes” at the annunciation — so I imagine her passivity at the crucifixion as a natural extension of that. But I’m curious about Toibin’s take on things; he’s such a wonderful writer. Thank you for the reminder!

  8. The Testament of Mary is our chosen book for this month. As I have expanded in my spirituality, I have struggled with the virgin birth and no longer feel it is necessary to the Jesus story. I do like Tobin’s Mary. She is very real and her story is heart wrenching. I would love the author to flesh out other stories in the Bible that often cause some consternation and consequently give rise to healthy debate and thought. I felt the book presented a great feel for that time in history and a sense that much of the Bible needs a good looking into.

  9. Can’t wait to read, may be see the play. Wondering if Toibin used the gnostic gospel of Mary to begin his writing. It’s a beautiful piece of unofficial/noncanonical writing.

  10. I just finished this novel. It was haunting and beautiful. I grew up catholic and find Colms rendition of Mary thoughtful and necessary.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.