Viking, £12.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Testament of Mary, By Colm Tóibín

This fictional portrait of Jesus's mother breaks with tradition to deepen her humanity

What kind of a person was Mary the mother of Jesus? Whether the Christian gospels are read as historical record or as imaginative literature, they offer only a sketchy portrait of the figure later writers and artists would call "God-bearer" and portray as the equal of God, enthroned in heaven opposite him, seemingly part of God as He was once part of her.

Mary has become her own myth, shape-shifting through history, her status fought over by theologians debating questions of original sin, the differing meanings ascribed to her brilliantly documented in our own day by cultural historians such as Marina Warner and Miri Rubin. Mary soars in cantatas by Handel, appears to peasant children on mountainsides, pops up iconoclastically in heretical works by feminists. Now she inspires Colm Tóibín to become her amanuensis and record her bleak, bitter testament.

When I wrote a novel about Mary Magdalene and the followers of Jesus, I cast it as a fifth Gospel, buried like the apocryphal Nag Hammadi texts. I saw the two Maries as split parts of a single woman: the sexual, visionary side; the powerful, maternal side. Tóibín sees Mary Magdalene as a devout follower of Jesus, a faithful friend to his mother.

He has no truck with the Catholic Church's insistence that Mary the Mother of Jesus remained virgin, experiencing a magical pregnancy. He brings her down to earth. He writes as a humanist, trying to understand Mary as a suffering human being afflicted with a difficult son.

The novel opens with Mary apparently talking to herself. We realise that she is recounting her story of the death of Jesus to "guardians" who seem more like jailers. Her admission that she cannot read or write reminded me of the 14th-century mystic Margery Kempe, forced to dictate her God-sent revelations to a priestly scribe. Mary's oral testimony becomes as grave and stately as a psalm, resonant with the familiar rhythms of the scriptures. The flow of the narrative is emphasised by the repeated use of "and". Nouns stay simple, acting less as signs of reality than as almost abstract markers: "fruit"; "bread"; "trees"; "cloak"; "shoes". Modern terms such as "consciousness" or "hysterical" jar but do not break the trance.

The near-symbolism of this antique-style language is shockingly disrupted when the human body in agony bursts into the text. Torture cannot be described. Tóibín echoes Auden; Mary says: "there were other things going on - horses being shoed and fed... insults and jokes being hurled, and fires lit to cook food."

Don't we know this story? Has it not been depicted repeatedly in paintings, sermons, poems, music? Are we not familiar with the lovely and tender gestures of the holy women bending over the torn body of their Lord? Tóibín's novel suddenly acts as a 16th-century Protestant, hacking and destroying graven images. He gives us a dark picture; a mother abandoning her son, fleeing to safety, not waiting to see him taken from the cross, washed and buried, getting out while she can: "I did not cry out or run to rescue him because it would have made no difference."

Mary's stoicism in grief and suffering is the stuff of priestly advice to women down the centuries. Tóibín does not so much subvert this image as enrich it. He is less concerned with portraying Mary as some kind of realistic character, I think, than with depicting the harrowing losses and evasions that can go on between mothers and sons. He creates a reversed Pièta: he holds the mother in his arms.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel is 'Ignorance' (Bloomsbury)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones