Testament of Mary (reading-as-a-writer 9)

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I had to read Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (2012) twice; the first time to get to the end of a gripping story, the second time to read the words. In between sittings, I studied the reviews and interviews, from the rabid Catholic World (“this very sad and very angry author”) to the rather gleeful New Humanist. Three Gifts for the abject writer-reader: (1) Consistency of voice. These are the hurried, muddled, angry, embittered words of a first-century, elderly, illiterate, terrified woman. Vocabulary, sentence structure, tiny details of time and place all fit – and the focus never wavers. The reader buzzes with unanswered questions – but these remain so because they concern the stories of others beyond Mary’s ken. (2) Layers of plot and themes. “Soul-rending exploration of a mother’s mourning” (Independent on Sunday). “Half-glimpsed political thriller” (Sunday Times). A fine piece of #historicalfiction, taking scant clues and constructing a compelling narrative. And strikingly, (to me, at least) probing of the tragic irony of the gospel writers’ need for the Mother’s memories to validate their accounts set against their contempt for the voices of women “who scampered in and out of the room like hunched and obedient animals”. (3) Writerly slyness. This book isn’t just an account of a mother’s grief; it also concerns the grief of a widow for a beloved husband, long departed. The references are opaque: The “light and grace” felt by a joyful pregnant girl (twisted by the chroniclers to suggest celestial visitation); the chair kept vacant and protected at knifepoint “for someone who will not return”; the final words as Mary approaches her own death: “The world has loosened, like a woman preparing for bed who lets her hair flow free.” #amreading #amwriting #bookstagram

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About Hannah

Author of literary historical fiction set in the First World War. Revising my first book, writing the next, seeking representation. Mountaineer, gardener, traveller, off-road runner. Africa, modern history, coffee, roses, films, book and unrealistic romance. NHS midwife in a former life.
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