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The Testament of Mary: A Novel Paperback – February 4, 2014

3.6 out of 5 stars 466 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Tóibín is at his lyrical best in The Testament of Mary, a beautiful and daring work…it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation.” (Mary Gordon The New York Times Book Review)

“[An] exquisite novella…Tóibín gives a familiar story startling intimacy.” (The New Yorker)

“A heartfelt, powerful work.” (Sam Sacks The Wall Street Journal)

“Dramatic and poetic…A powerful, devastating story.” (Ron Charles The Washington Post)

“Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.” (Annalisa Quinn NPR)

“Mary—silent, obedient, observant—has echoed down two millennia, cementing a potent ideal in the Western imagination. Now the masterful Irish writer Colm Tóibín puts a jackhammer to the cozy, safe, Christmas-card version in The Testament of Mary.” (Karen R. Long Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“A slim, grave, exquisitely emotional book…The Testament of Mary is a spellbinding, surprisingly reverent book.” (Jeff Giles Entertainment Weekly)

“Tóibín applies a Joycean ruthlessness…Imagining himself into Mary’s interior life is his boldest jump yet.” (Hermione Lee The New York Review of Books)

“Tóibín’s intimate approach make Mary feel more credible and human…The result, The Testament of Mary, feels true.” (Claire Cameron The Millions)

“Tóibín suffuses the story with a sense of mystery and makes the reader feel (perhaps as never before) the tragedy of the crucifixion.” (Macy Halford Buzzfeed)

“A deeply, if at times painfully, human portrait of Mary, tearing asunder the robes of red and blue that envelop her in paintings and sculptures.” (Michael O’Loughlin America magazine)

“With this masterly novella, Tóibín has finally tackled the subject of Christianity—and he has done so with a vengeance…Nowhere in this beguiling and deeply intelligent, moving work is Mary’s attention to detail more instrumental (and more like a novelist’s) than in her account of her son’s death…In a single passage—and in a rendition, furthermore, of one of the most famous passages of western literature—Tóibín shows how the telling and the details are all-important.” (Robert Collins Sunday Times (UK))

“[A] monumental achievement…equally powerful and poignant whether it’s read by one who espouses or eschews the New Testament…A tender, soul-rending exploration of a mother’s mourning; a searing, stunning work.” (Leyla Sanai The Independent (UK))

“The Testament of Mary is an important and persuasive book: Tóibín's weary Mary, sceptical and grudging, reads as far more true and real than the saintly perpetual virgin of legend. And Tóibín is a wonderful writer: as ever, his lyrical and moving prose is the real miracle.” (Naomi Alderman Observer (UK))

“There is a profound ache throughout this little character study, a steely determination coupled with an unbearable loss. Although it has some insightful things to say about religion and the period—the descriptions of the Crucifixion are visceral—it has a universal message about the nature of loss. ‘I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’” (Stuart Kelly Scotland on Sunday)

“This novel is the Virgin's version of the life of Christ. After a lifetime listening to everyone else's versions of that life, she is angry and frustrated because they are all questionable.” (John Spain Irish Independent)

“A flawless work, touching, moving and terrifying…” (Linda Grant The New Statesman (UK))

“Reading this perfect little novella is like watching someone light a candle inside a lantern.” (The Age (Australia))

“A stunning interpretation that is as beautiful in its presentation as it is provocative in its intention.” (Booklist)

“[A] poignant reimagining of the last days of Christ.” (Publishers Weekly)

“[The Testament of Mary] builds to a provocative climax, one that is as spiritually profound as its prose is plainspoken…A work suffused with mystery and wonder.” (Kirkus Reviews)

About the Author

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (February 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451692382
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451692389
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.3 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (466 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,800 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Anne Mills on January 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A powerful imagining of how the death of Jesus might have been experienced by his mother -- if in fact his mother was a Judean peasant woman in the first century of the Roman Empire, and not the Queen of Heaven. This Mary is old, she is bitter, and she is very human.

The tale is told by Mary in her old age, living out her life in a house in Ephesus, where two disciples try to get her to remember Jesus life and death as they want to have it remembered. Mary, however, remembers it differently. The story focusses on Jesus' last days and on his death, and Mary does not see this as a glorious event that opens the way to redemption. Or, if Jesus' death was the way to universal redemption, she does not think that her son's agony was worth it. Moreover, her own humanity intrudes into the story that came to prevail. This Mary fled Golgotha in fear for her life, and suffers guilt for that. What she longs for is the long ago, when her son was small and safe, and her husband was with her.

Based on the spread of ratings here and on Librarything, people either like this book a lot, or dislike it intensely. For a believer, it would be hard to like. For a non-believer, it is a moving and beautifully written story of what Mary's experience -- as a mother and a woman in her time and place -- might have been like.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Caution: spoilers ahead.

You can write a book that reimagines the story of a beloved hero or heroine, that turns myths about them on their head, and yet provides deeper insights into their character. Then again, you can write a book that merely inverts everything that you know about such a character, turns their virtues into failings and teaches us nothing about them. "Testament of Mary" belongs in the latter category.

In ToM, Colm Toibin gives us a scant 81 pages that are long on Mary's self-pitying reflections about her life, short on insights about her and Jesus, dismissive about Jesus's mission and full of bizarre details and anachronisms. Toibin's conceit is that Mary was traumatized by the crucifixion of her son. No doubt. But since there is no resurrection in his book, just followers claiming one, there is little to solace her grief and pain. She inhabits Ephesus, lonely among those who do not speak her language, enduring visits by her male keepers, and loitering around pagan temples. Mostly, she mopes and complains, knowing that her real and ordinary life is being transformed by those who wants to make her son into something she knows he was not.

The Jesus that Mary describes in ToM is a miracle worker, to be sure. He raises the dead, changes water to wine and walks on water. But his mother is unimpressed. To her, Jesus is a pompous jerk who likes to talk, "his voice all false and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him." He pals around with rabble - "a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young." His teaching are the late-night ramblings of fools.
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Format: Hardcover
This short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother's love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be, perhaps, the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn't stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

As Jesus' followers encourage her to embellish her story to tie in with the legend they are beginning to create, Mary feels that she must tell, even if only once, the true story of her involvement in these momentous events. We see her cynicism and doubt about the miracles attributed to her son; her dislike, contempt even, for those followers who seem intent on feeding his ego, who seem to be provoking his martyrdom to serve their own ends. And most of all we come to understand and almost to share her guilt and fear.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary's driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none - this story is first and foremost about humanity. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Testament of Mary" by Colm Toibin is the story of Mary's life shortly before Jesus' crucifixion, and then her life afterward. It is really just the story of an older woman living with life's regrets and sorrows, and the legacy of what a child of hers had done--just like many mothers over the centuries. Is this a great book? No, but it does make the reader wonder what her life was like, since the Christian "spin" over the centuries has focused on her virtues, as opposed to her life. I do agree, however, with the other reviewers who say that the characters are not fleshed out very well. The book is an interesting idea--it just doesn't meet its potential.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Colm Toibin is a fine writer; that's not in question. But this novella about the final days in the life of Mary, mother of Jesus is muddled and meandering. Mary's character is never quite clear; she comes off as confused and bitter, but lacking in insight on all that has gone on around her. There is also some intentional obscurity here, with characters left unnamed and the passage of time fluid. This read more like a first draft than a completed work.
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