Now before I get all the comments about “how can a bloke read and review that many books in a week” I better start this review with the disclaimer that the latest “novel” from Colm Toibin is exactly 104 pages long. They are small pages too – so a “novel” you can easily knock over in a single session.
The back cover of my edition has a review from Edmund White of the “Irish Times” that says “This is a short book, but it is as dense as a diamond”, I agree, it is a short book, and yes it could be called dense, it could also be called presumptuous.
In 1953 Nikos Kazantzakis had his novel “The Last Temptation of Christ” published, the novel being written from Christ’s perspective, a human, a man also subjected to self-doubt, fear and of course temptation. In 1955 he was apparently excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church for his writing. Imagine making Christ a mere mortal, even if it was for literary purposes.
So now we have Colm Toibin revisiting the story of Jesus’ mother, Mary. In this book she is a mere mortal, a mother struggling to come to terms with the reverence that is being bestowed upon her child:
He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had ever dreamed that I would see him bloody, and the crowd around filled with zeal that he should be bloodied more, I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me. The rest of me is merely flesh and blood and bone.
This story relies heavily on you already understanding Christian dogma, there is a basic assumption that the Bible’s teachings of walking on water, turning water into wine and healing sick etc. is base knowledge:
In the kitchen the next morning news came that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were going to come to Miriam’s house first, and then accompany us to the feast. Lazarus was still weak, we were told, and his sisters had become aware of how afraid people were of him. ‘He lives with the secret that none of us knows,’ Miriam said. ‘His spirit had time to take root in the other world, and people are afraid of what he could say, the knowledge he could impart. His sisters do not want to go alone with him to the wedding.’
The sorry, inner lament that is Mary’s story as she recalls the pain of a grieving mother is amazingly mapped throughout, paced immaculately (nice word for a review of this type) and nuanced with slow reflective passages.
And then time created the man who sat beside me at the wedding feast in Cana, the man not heeding me, hearing no one, a man filled with power, a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as he learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep.
Interestingly the name “Jesus” is not mentioned once throughout but I can imagine this book will still upset a number of fundamentalists, as it explores the inner machinations of Mary as she is telling her tale to the disciples who want to continue the good word. Personally I thought this no more “outrageous” than Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation and to be honest some of the last sections that call into question the historical accuracy of biblical tales could well be considered more heretic than Kazantzakis’ work. That is not, in any way, to say this is a lesser work, nor a story not worth exploring.
I have done my best to not refer to Colm Toibin’s latest work as a “novel” throughout this review as it is not, it is a short story – even if it is as “dense as a diamond”. As a result I don’t think this will be announced as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize (unless the judges think controversy is a good thing) as besides being too short a work it also relies very much on readers having an understanding of Christian teachings – if you did not know about Lazarus coming back from the dead and living with his sisters what sort of fantasy would you be reading?
There is no doubt that this is a fine work but not a gong winner for mine.