THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, by Colm Toibin, Scribner, 81 pp., $19.99.
In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is elevated nearly to divinity itself. Venerated in prayer and Mass as Queen of Heaven, she is eternally pure and spotless, both virgin and mother, a paragon of righteousness. For most Protestants, however, she is regarded simply as the humble Jewish woman known as Miriam who gave birth to Jesus.
Based on the evidence of "The Testament of Mary," it's fair to say that esteemed Irish novelist Colm Toibin has thrown off every trace of his Catholic upbringing. Beyond that, the point of this iconoclastic novella isn't clear.
Toibin's account, told in Mary's straightforward, low-key retrospective voice, depicts an elderly woman reliving the harrowing events before, during and immediately after Jesus' crucifixion. She has been whisked away to Ephesus, in Asia Minor, by handlers who feel more like jailers than protectors. What they want, she refuses to give: Her imprimatur, as it were, to the declaration that Jesus is God's son, the Messiah whose death and resurrection redeems the sins of humanity.
Toibin's Mary may be illiterate, but she is nobody's fool. She's skeptical of stories claiming that her son can walk on water or cure lepers. She attends the marriage at Cana, but misses the moment when water is transformed into wine. She is, in fact, a killjoy at the feast, mocking the bride and groom as "a couple to be sacrificed, for the sake of money, or status, or inheritance."
Toward Jesus' disciples she is merciless: They are nothing but "misfits" -- "fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers."
Mary still loves the son she remembers as "grateful, good-mannered, intelligent," but now she can't abide his "high flown talk and riddles." He seems stern and distant, a creature possessed. On Calvary, the agony she witnesses proves so hard to bear that she flees in horror with Mary Magdalene even before Jesus dies.
In short, there is no Pieta moment -- no mother cradling her dead son, that icon of Christian art throughout the centuries. She is just too frail, too human.
Is this a Mary the author wants us to embrace? She seems too forbidding for that. In old age, she's a rationalist more comfortable at the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis than in a synagogue. Urged to get with the emerging Christian program, she just says no. She can never accept her son's death as a worthy sacrifice, for anything.
My favorite Toibin novel is "The Master," which achieves the miracle of getting inside the head of novelist Henry James. "The Testament of Mary" fills Mary's head with a sorrowing mother's resentments. In this book, she's no saint, and her son is no miracle worker.