For a brief book, this novella by Colm Tóibín carries a heavy imaginative weight. It is a version of Mary the Mother of God that does not conform to Catholic orthodoxy, although a wider Christian viewpoint, to which Mary is not necessarily central, may find this approach less challenging and more interesting.
It certainly is interesting: Mary admits to exhaustion and to a longing for the grave. The grave, and rest and peace; not eternity and not eternal bliss with the son who has died before her, nor with the God-head who fathered him without ever being her husband.
This is a narrative short on names; even the husband in whose memory she has kept an empty chair is not named, although lovingly recalled. Her son is ‘he’, and the proselytisers who interrogate her are anonymous, although their role as evangelists is wearily resisted. She knows when her testimony of what happened and what she saw chimes with what they want to record, and when it doesn’t, as is often the case. “They think that I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world,” she says of these men with their “vast and insatiable needs.”
From her safe house in Ephesus, she sees how what might have been a sweet story is growing poisonous like bright, low-hanging berries, and she doesn’t want to be involved in that transformation.
Like the poet Denise Levertov (in ‘Annunciation’ from A Door in the Hive, 1989), we might ask why she didn’t tell that angel where to go in the first place, when she had the opportunity to refuse. But then she wasn’t given all the facts: ‘This was the minute no one speaks of/when she could still refuse.’
In reimagining the crucial encounters of Mary’s life, Tóibín doesn’t start with this one, the moment of which no-one speaks.
It’s as if Mary has forgotten its implied consolations. Instead, the intense identification with chosen events is heightened by the fashioned clarity of the prose. These are not merely descriptions.
Tóibín offers a Golgotha like a market-place, where Mary watches a man feeding live rabbits to an eagle in a cage and where she realises that the disciples have fled. These are observations as if from a disturbed witness to scenes, few more heart-rending than the resurrection of Lazarus. It is his sister, Mary, who stands at the foot of the cross and escapes from Calvary, as does Mary the mother herself, so forget the Magdalene and eliminate the Pieta from your religious memory. The subtle deconstruction of Catholic iconography is both fervent and compelling, as Tóibín fuses dreams with the spiritual fictions so fiercely proclaimed through the centuries.
Yet, there is a sense of something lost as the story ends — call it memoir, reflection or witness — and Mary returns to the temple and to the old goddess Artemis, insisting, like any mother of a cruelly sacrificed son, “it was not worth it.”