In his new book, The Testament of Mary, Irish author Colm Toibin paints an unorthodox picture of Jesus' mother, portraying her as a bitter, deeply troubled character who, in fear, abandons her son during his crucifixion to seek refuge for herself.
Although the book differs extremely from the traditional Gospel accounts in the Bible, offering a grim, vengeful look at Mary, critics contend that its eloquent prose gives the historical mother figure a definitive voice, making her human and all the more relatable to Christian readers.
"Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, 'The Testament of Mary' finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human," the Colorado River Public Media book review reads.
Toibin's Mary, who in her old age lives in solitude in a small room in Ephesus, reluctantly recalls the story of her son's crucifixion to two unnamed men, one of whom is presumably the Apostle John.
The book, as critics point out, differs extremely from the traditional teaching of the Gospel, and is meant for readers who do not seek to find the orthodox, loving mother portrayal of Mary often found in Christian descriptions.
As The Washington Post's book review contends, Mary's persistent commitment to the truth is a central theme throughout the book. The grieving, angry mother figure blames Jesus' disciples for his crucifixion, and ultimately expresses disgust that the two men listening to her recount are so accepting of her son's death.
According to Maclean's book review, the pivotal twist of the book comes at the end, when Mary truly expresses the raw grieving only a parent can feel for the loss of their child.
"When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it," Mary bitterly tells the two men.
As Toibin told NPR, he chose to write such a controversial account of Mary because he wanted to explore what it must be like for a mother to grieve the loss of her son.
"Then I had to just leave the Gospels aside, leave all sources aside, and begin to imagine: What would that be like if you had known this man as a baby? If you had nurtured this child, if you were a woman who had nurtured him, to see him try to pick out, pull at the crown of thorns, and actually pushing the thorns in even farther?" Toibin told NPR.
Toibin reportedly found his inspiration for the novella in the Italian version of the Virgin Mary, as opposed to the Mary figure of his Irish homeland.
Toibin pulled his inspiration for the controversial historical figure from two paintings, Renaissance artist Titian's "Assumption", which depicts a rosy-cheeked Mary being escorted to heaven by angels, and a painting of the "Crucifixion" by Tintoretto, a dark portrayal of a weakened Mary witnessing her son's crucifixion.
"I was absolutely struck by the difference between the two images. One, pure, the way they wanted her to be, arising, you know, into heaven; and the other impure, chaotic, cruel, strange, unforgettable," Toibin told NPR.
The Washington's Post's review of the novella, which is 104 pages long, contends that Toibin's character "isn't your mother's Mother Mary."
"If you'd enjoy a tale predicated on the idea that Christian faith is a toxic collection of 'foolish anecdotes' based on a 'fierce catastrophe,' Merry Christmas!" the review reads.
"There was a time when a book like this wouldn't have had a holy ghost of a chance of getting published. But The Testament of Mary hasn't sparked outrage or boycotts – a reassuring testament to the West's tolerance for such artistic license and Toibin's prominence," the review adds.
Toibin is an Irish author who has re-created historical figures in his previous works, including The Master, shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, in which Toibin tells the story of author Henry James as a lonely man looking for love in the wrong places.