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The Testament of Mary, By Colm Tóibín

The messiah, a magician, and my son

Colm Tóibí* is a master at peering into the marrow of families. The Blackwater Lightship, shortlisted for the Impac Dublin and the Booker prizes, portrayed the regrouping of a shattered family. Brooklyn, the winner of the Costa, entered the mind of a girl leaving the confines of parochial life for a new start in America. The stories in Mothers and Sons, the winner of the Edge Hill prize, explored the nuances of this complex relationship.

It is the mother and son bond to which Tóibí* returns in his new novella, specifically, a mother and son who have dominated Christian western society for the past two millennia: Mary and Jesus.

Mary's story is related in the first person, and depicts her not as the iconic figure she has become but as a lamenting mother torn apart by grief and guilt. Old and alone, she is frequently interrogated by two of her late son's disciples, who become impatient if she veers from their version of events, in which her son was the son of God, a miracle worker. As she looks back at her son's life and brutal crucifixion, she mourns the loss of the child who loved and needed her, and his development into a man who attracted society's losers and was all too willing to preach to them, assuaging their hunger for an idol with "his voice all false, and his tone all stilted". Her pain at his irascibility with her (literally the Gospel truth: "Who is my mother?": Matthew, 12:48) is harrowing.

The monumental achievement here is that the book is equally powerful and poignant whether it's read by one who espouses or eschews the New Testament. Mary's version allows for belief and doubt. She relates Jesus summoning Lazarus from the grave, but in our enlightened minds, the seed of dubiety is planted: was Lazarus dead when he was interred in his tomb? Similarly, when Jesus converts water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, Mary observes that the pitchers of wine appear quickly (were they lined up as magician's props?) and that only the first is seen to have held water previously. Her son's hubristic insistence that he is the son of God could even be interpreted as that of a young man in the throes of schizophrenia or mania.

This is a tender, soul-rending exploration of a mother's mourning; a searing, stunning work.

Viking £12.99