This short novella is a quick and easy read. The story and narrative belongs to Mary, mother of Jesus, as an elderly woman living her final years in exile in Ephesus (Turkey) whilst looking back on her life, and in a state of fear that she might get captured and killed by the Roman authorities. From a Catholic perspective, the story is a fresh – if not bold – approach which reveals new insights into the life of Mary after the crucifixion; although Tóibín’s story remains entirely fictional.
Very little is actually written about Mary, with the exception of snippets in the gospels. But even these tell us little about the kind of person she was. Having being brought up as a Catholic, however, I have been conditioned to imagine her as a beautiful, kind and loving woman. I remember the first time I visited the Louvre in Paris, years ago, and being fascinated by numerous paintings showing various artist interpretations of Mary – either showing her young or middle-aged, plain or beautiful, as well as different representations pertaining to her body shape.
By the time I finished reading this story, my previously imagined view had changed somewhat. In this book, Tobin conveyed to me an image of Mary as a tired and cantankerous old woman who wanted peace and reclusion. By doing so, I was easily able to muster up images of old ladies I knew as a child growing up in Ireland, who lived by themselves and were self-sufficient with just their own company. They disliked outside interference and wanted to live peaceful existences where they weren’t disturbed by others. They were satisfied with simplistic living and desired few luxuries or materialistic goods, with the exception of the warmth that an open turf fire might have offered them. I think ultimately Tóibín did a marvellous job portraying Mary as a human being – vulnerable, flawed and alone who held opinions about Jesus from a maternal viewpoint without being concerned that her views clashed with his followers who wanted to write about his life through ‘rose tinted’ spectacles. Her thoughts questioned the necessity of the crucifixion because she still wished that it had never happened and were mainly fuelled by her disbelief that Jesus’ death had anything to do with saving mankind from sin.
Shortly after finishing reading Tóibín’s novella, I visited Greece, where I was taken on a tour by friends to Greek-Orthodox churches and monasteries. A recurring feature in many of these religious buildings was the sight of a Fresco on the western wall depicting a scene referred to as ‘The Koimisis of the Virgin’. In simple terms this is a picture of Mary on her death bed, surrounded by the twelve apostles, along with Jesus in visionary form holding a small child, representing her soul. The truth is this scene too is fiction because theologians recognise that nobody knows where, when or how Mary actually died.
I commend Tóibín on the very unique stance he has taken in this book. It was first published in 2013 and I note that it has received mixed reviews online, but overall it has been well received with the greater majority praising it for his simple yet provocative narrative, whilst recognising that Tóibín has not distracted nor discredited anything said or implied in the gospels – rather he has added to the diversity of what may or may not have happened to Mary after Jesus’ death. Overall, I think Tóibín did a fabulous job with this story.
© Declan Henry