Monday, April 21, 2014

Audiobook Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

In The Testament of Mary (3 hours, 7 minutes; narrated by Meryl Streep), author Colm Toibin gives voice to Mary, mother of Jesus. Now elderly, Mary remembers the crucifixion of her Son and retells it in grim detail. She also provides her perspective on his followers - and it is not an exalted view. In much the same way, she is cynical about her Son's death; she does not share his view that He will rise again and questions whether His violent death was "worth it". Her bitter, resigned tone is in stark contrast to the portrait painted of her in Bible as a long-suffering but gracious martyr who sacrificed her only Son for the greater good of humanity.

In this novella, Mary is a grieving mother, mourning the loss of her only Son. With mourning, comes anger - anger at those that killed him, at herself for not doing enough for him on his path to crucifixion and anger at his zealous followers and what she sees as their celebration of his death. To them, he was a leader of a movement and he has left a legacy they must carry on by telling his stories in Gospels and starting the Church. To Mary, however, he was her son - completely human, cruelly executed and his death is nothing to be celebrated. His supposed legacy does not bring her comfort. Rather, she is suspicious of His disciples, questions their motives and finds their efforts to care for her cloying and overbearing.

My Thoughts
This book fascinated me not only because it provided a provocative view so contrary to everything I learned in Catholic school but also because the author executes the narrative with such artistry. In typical Toibin style, the language is spare but beautiful. The spare narrative only emphasizes the raw grief experienced by Mary and brings that to life. Mary in this tale is, first and foremost, human. She experiences grief you would expect from any mother but it is still shocking as it runs counter to all we have been told about the martyr Mary who gave up her only Son to save the world. Even though the events of the story - walking to the cross, His death, and the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day are well known by those familiar with the New Testament, this novella is gripping because we hear it from the perspective of someone who cannot celebrate the miracle but rather mourns her Son and questions how there can be any value in his cruel death.

The audiobook is narrated by Meryl Streep and her performance is exemplary. I felt as if I was sitting in a theater listening to a Broadway performance.  She imbues each line with such emotion that I actually had a heavy heart listening in places as Meryl as Mary describes her overwhelming grief. As beautiful as Toibin's written words are, I think they were made all the better by Streep's performance.  Highly recommend this provocative but beautiful novella.


  1. Nice review! Sounds like audio is the way to go with this book.

  2. We read this but once I found that Meryl Streep was doing the audio I sure did regret not waiting! :--)

  3. This has been on my wish list for too long! I love Toibin's writing and can't imagine a narrator more wonderful than Meryl Streep. What am I waiting for??? Great review, Colleen.

  4. I listened to this last year after reading about Streep's brilliant reading of it and after enjoying Toibin's Brooklyn. I have to say that I was disappointed--Streep did a wonderful job, of course, and the writing was powerful, but not believable, at least to me.

    Maybe I wanted Mary to be the gentle, loving Mother of God and not a bitter, cynical old woman. I guess Mary just didn't sound like a mother to me, regardless of whether she believed in her son's message and mission, it sounded like she washed her hands of him, and that I just couldn't buy.

    To me the narrative always sounded like a man and never like a woman.

    >She imbues each line with such emotion that I actually had a heavy heart listening in places as Meryl as Mary describes her overwhelming grief.


  5. I have this book on my Kindle, but you have convinced me to listen to the audiobook. I only wish I had seen the stage version of this when it was here in NYC. Great review!