Secular shelf life from Sarah Allen: The testament of Mary (book review)

By Colm Toibin
Penguin. 104 pages. £7.99
ISBN 978 0 241 962 978

£8.00 for 104 pages seems a high price to pay.

That’s about 7.6p per page, and even if no one really pays the cover price these days, you might still feel it is a bit steep for so slight a book. The critics, however, seem to think this is not a slight book. It is the shortest book ever to have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been receiving plenty of heavy-weight accolades.

But though The Testament of Mary has been called ‘beautiful and daring’ by the New York Times, I fear it treads a well-worn path. The ageing virgin Mary gives her account of a few Gospel events, confiding in the reader the strangeness of events which won’t be heard by the ‘impatient… hungry and rough’ apostles who come to her for details to fill their Gospels.

Christ taken over

She tells of a Christ who is taken over by his followers and their desire to think him divine and who is transformed from being ‘awash with needs’ to having a dangerous and careless radiance. Clearly this Christ has power, but little compassion or courage. Mary, instead, is the only one who seems to show empathy and wisdom through it all, and ends up in exile taking comfort in Artemis.

Mary veneration

You can tell Colm Toibin is a lapsed Catholic, though on Radio Four recently he claimed not to have been influenced by his (lack of) religion, yet veneration of Mary seeps through the book. Jesus seems very distant, but she is near at hand, full of sense and sensitivity. And then there are the layers of pop biblical criticism which appear every few years in books or on TV: the Bible as inaccurate, the apostles as misogynist bullies, Jesus as a poor misunderstood figure and the resurrection as myth. What lifts it up and what will make readers engage is the simple, dignified tone and almost poetic rhythm of the writing.

‘Don’t despair’

Reader, don’t despair. It saddened me to read this book, but I’ve already had a brief chat at the school gates about its content. As our neighbours soak up the skewed reality of this new (or, rather, old) gospel, let’s take them back to the first texts and encourage them to delve into God’s word, maybe for the first time.



Sarah Allen writes the ‘Secular shelf life’ column for EN, is a secondary school English teacher, and is currently involved in evangelism and women’s work at Hope Church, Huddersfield.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057