by Colm Toibin
I'm still gnawing on this novella, having completed it a few weeks ago, so consider this a preliminary report. But this novella is dense, intense, personal to each reader, and needs, I think, to be understood as speculation on a pivotal and unrecorded point in the life of Mary, mother of Jesus.
The basic set-up is that Mary is living in Turkey, protected by two apostles (Peter and John?). She is elderly and talks about being close to death herself. She is, not very willingly, assisting the apostles as they try to write a life of Jesus. And she is mightily pissed off.
Toibin's Mary has lived as an observant Jew who "loves the Sabbath." She says this more than once in the story. One of her struggles is to place Jesus and his followers in a Jewish context. He doesn't make sense as Messiah to her, but the apostles who visit her are not inclined to entertain her doubts or listen to anything other than testimony that supports their version of events. Is she the first woman crushed by a male hierarchy in the Church? It is hard not to think about this as the apostles become angry and impatient with her, even coarse. To them, she is a holy relic, a vessel. Hardly a real person.
In clinging to her grief and her own version of events, Mary rejects being made into a relic (in all senses of that word) and retains her full human-ness. And it is in the nature of human grief to be angry. As a mother watching a son's execution that dragged on for three or four hours, Mary would also suffer long-lasting trauma, especially without sympathetic companions, and Mary lacks such companions. A sympathetic reader longs to clear the devout, rough men out of Mary's little house and simply let her think. Because even as she clings to her version of events and the anger that seems to keep her body and soul together, the reader sees Mary wrestling with the wonders of Christ's life, including raising Lazarus and veiled allusions to his conception.
There is a scene in which Mary visits, with a kindly neighbor, the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis. Has Mary turned pagan? I doubt it, and I think this scene has been taken out of context by detractors of the novella. Mary remains a Jew ... but she seeks a female figure to whom she can pour out her troubles, and she buys a little statue of Artemis, who appears to her motherly, nurturing. (I couldn't help thinking of my own urge to build a little altar to St. Hilda or my neighbor's statue of the Virgin in her garden; the Artemis is a kind of proto-Mary, our desire for the Feminine Divine). In stepping out of her Judaism to visit Artemis' temple, Mary also steps into the Greek world that so affected the course of the Gospels. Is Toibin making a connection here? Hard to say, and if he is, I'm not sure to what end. But it's perhaps an idea worth exploring.
Toward the end of the novella the work of the apostles in recording the life of Christ is wrapping up and that they will leave Mary to the paid protection of her neighbors. Is it wrong to imagine that Mary's story is not over? That there is healing ahead for her? And that with that healing will come reconciliation between her son's life and her faith? Again, I don't know. Perhaps, as a Catholic who rejects notions of Mary as passive and accepting, but who recognizes the same comfort in her that she found in her little Artemis, I am reading the story I want instead of the story that is there.
But I think Toibin's genius is that he blows away the holy card Mary with the halo of stars and standing, as if without feeling, on a serpent, head bent in a kind of anatomical position (see photo). Tobin invites us to meet a real Mary who is damaged by grief, fully human, often angry and frustrated, but perceptive and alert. In other words, exactly the sort of woman to take our cares before God Almighty and make Him understand them.