Sunday 3 March 2013

The Testament of Mary - my fault, or his?

The Testament ofMary, by Colm Toibin (Viking: 2012) Colm Toibin writes the story of Mary, using the first person voice. She is nearing the end of her life, and reminisces of the events and heartbreaks that have defined it, giving a mother’s perspective rather than a disciple’s.

Some books fly by. Each page feels like it’s slipping through your fingers as you rush towards the end. It doesn’t feel so much like reading the book as experiencing the story.
This was not one of those books. But, in all fairness, I need to shoulder some of the blame. More than any other book in recent memory, I read this in snatched five minutes here and there. I read this when tired, and I read it whilst a little sniffly (which is my entirely modest way of saying I had chronic man flu and nearly died). Any book, when read like that, would suffer. 
And suffer it did. I never fully engaged with this, and it drifted away from memory pretty soon after I finished it.
It puts me in a bit of a difficult position in evaluating it. I can recognize some great aspects of this book. The premise is just plain great, and the writing is done with a very distinct, very consistent, and very strong voice. You get a clear impression of Mary as a mother and as an old woman, neither of which chimes with the more traditional image of her. She comes across as incredibly human, stubborn, and at times helpless. There’s mystery in the plotting (which is difficult as pretty much everyone knows this story), and Toibin paces it very well. He made the good decision to make this a novella rather than anything longer, which fits the book perfectly.
So, all of this I recognized. All of this I spotted, despite reading it in hurried bursts. And yet, despite seeing all of this, I still never really connected with the book. I never felt surrounded by it. I never thought it was a book I needed to go and yell about. And yes, some of that was my fault, but it’s Toibin’s too. He’s got all these tools at his disposal, but he uses them in an incredibly mechanical way. I struggled to see the art here. It felt like an exercise. One well executed, but without any real flair.
I’ll read this again one day. And I’m sure I’ll get it then. But first time through, whether through my fault or Toibin’s, this did not work.
Couple of rough ones in a row there. Pressure on next week now. I’m sure you’re all riveted to find out if we get back on track…

No comments: