The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for the tendency to believe everything in the news


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: The tendency to believe everything you hear on the news

Cure: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

However you harvest your news – in printed columns, coffee to hand, or on screen, in bite-sized snippets – you may be lulled into accepting it as gospel truth. But even the most objective reports involve a personal perspective. Novels are a vital reminder that the same story can be radically different when told from another point of view.

Few novels show this more startlingly than Colm Tóibín's Booker-shortlisted The Testament of Mary. Let it challenge your own understanding of this most familiar of stories, and remind you that the truth – if such a thing exists – is always hard to nail down.

It is some years after the crucifixion, and Jesus's former disciples have come to interview his mother in order to write their gospels. But Mary's own story is different to the one they are writing. She tells of a docile child who fell in with a crowd of misfits – needy young men who listened with reverence to Jesus, while to her ear he sounded "false" and "stilted".

We hear of Lazarus's terrifying resurrection, and the wedding in Cana at which water was turned into wine, and we see a mother rejecting the myth that's being spun around her son. While his followers talk of Jesus's death as a gift, all Mary can think of is how, after one of his arms was nailed to the cross, he pinioned the other to his chest in a desperate attempt to avoid more agony. While they insist that her son died to save mankind, she says it "was not worth it".

Angry and bitter, the Mary we meet in this novel could not be further from the mild figure depicted in Catholic art. Jesus, too, has never seemed more human. Of course, Tóibín's version of the story is only that – another version. But there are as many ways to portray a life as there are lives to live. Learn as much as you can about events in the news before you form an opinion. The truth is a slippery thing.