Irish novelist and playwright Colm Toibin tends to feature strong women characters in his novels, often mothers who are troublesome and prone to passion or rage. In The Testament of Mary, he gives us a striking version of the virgin Mary. To be honest, though intriguing, I found it a bit difficult to read because it is full of raw emotion and anger. Toibin imagines the most difficult and painful parts of the story, as Mary watches her son suffer and die in a politically tumultuous time when it was difficult to know whom to trust. She feared for her own life as well. When we think of Mary, we remember that she bravely took on her role as mother of the Son of God, which was full of mystery and unknown, and displayed an extraordinary faith as she treasured and pondered many things in her heart. But Toibin’s fictional perspective adds another interesting view, capturing the confusion and chaos of the time in an emotional flashback that must also ring true. The book has a subversive feel to it, because it is not the sentimental story of Mary that we are used to.
As a literary piece, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, The Testament of Mary, is a fine bit of writing, from an author who I have a lot of respect for. It has been performed in London as a one woman show on stage by Fiona Shaw. I would have liked to see that, but sadly the show has now closed.
Eilis (AYE-lish) reluctantly immigrates to New York from a small town in Ireland, leaving all she knows behind. Homesickness is almost crippling until Eilis begins to embrace her new life, making friends and finding work. The author captures the isolation and struggle of the immigrant experience well. When tragedy strikes, she discovers that returning to the old world can be as much of a challenge as adjusting to the new world. There is a sense that when she is in one place, the other has become a sort of fantasy and feels very far removed.
There is an emotionally handicapped quality to Eilis, who can’t seem to take charge of her own life and is swayed too easily by a sense of duty or by what others want of her. Toibin portrays well the fact that life is a collection of choices. Eilis seems to let destiny make most of her choices for her. Emotions are submerged and relationships suffer because of ambiguity and passivity. Perhaps during these 1950s immigration times, that’s just how it was for young women like Eilis. Some have drawn parallels to the character of Isabel Archer in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James with similar themes of freedom, responsibility, betrayal, and sexuality.
This was a book club assignment for me, and since I have often seen this author’s name, I was glad to read one of his books. It was highly readable and interesting to discuss, if not a bestseller. I will definitely read more by this author at some point. The writing is intriguing because it is unadorned and unsentimental, but has depth, layers, and themes to explore.