The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín’s latest book, The Testament of Mary, is a sad and bleak novella where Mary is presented as a very human and believable mother still trying to come to terms with the death of her son some twenty years earlier.

“They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything.”


Fear and suspicion under the Roman occupation pervade the atmosphere but even more striking is the lyrical exploration of the relationship between dreams and reality, between states of awareness in life and death: “Maybe that is how the dead are, they are unaware, they do not miss the world or know what happens there.”

Ultimately, it is for the reader to decide where the dream ends and belief begins.

The Testament of Mary is one of several books to explore the story of birth of Christianity from new perspectives this year. Among the best of the crop is Naomi Alderman’s The Liar’s Gospel.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín is published by Viking. ISBN-10: 0670922099. ISBN-13: 978-0670922093

The Third Miracle : An ordinary man, a medical mystery and a trial of faith by Bill Briggs

If you have ever wondered about the process involved in making a saint, The Third Miracle is the book to read. Written by a journalist, it describes the steps involved from “living deeds” to “miracles” and from “miracles” to canonisation and sainthood.

In The Third Miracle Briggs recounts the process leading to the canonisation of Mother Theodore Guerin, a French nun who, in 1840, founded a convent in Indiana, USA — “a rustic Roman Catholic outpost in an ardently anti-Catholic country”. The process was to take well over 100 years picking up pace in 2001 following the miraculous healing of a Baptist handyman, Phil McCord.

Although a man of science, McCord was intrigued by faith — “I’m kind of a believer in spite of myself”, he says. And so when he has to face surgery on his eye, he surprises himself by looking for Mother Theodore’s intercession: “He would ask Mother Theodore Guerin for a moment of her attention and for a dose of her famed backwoods strength”.

He is more surprised than anyone when he is unexpectedly and inexplicably cured.  “If it was a miracle, McCord couldn’t fathom why he had been the recipient” — and it is his scepticism that makes him such a strong witness in securing the sainthood of Mother Theodore GuerIn.

The Third Miracle describes the Church’s investigation of the “miracle” and provides interesting insight into the mysterious and secretive process that goes to make a saint. Briggs has a very readable and accessible style which is well suited to the telling of the tale. Like the blurb says, this is part detective story and part courtroom drama. It picks up pace once the investigation gets underway. A nice add-on is that Briggs provides notes on his own research at the end of the book.

The Third Miracle: an ordinary man, a medical mystery and a trial of faith by Bill Briggs is published by Broadway Paperbacks. Isbn: 978076932714. A free review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman

The Liars Gospel by Naomi Alderman presents the story of Yehoshuah (Jesus) from the perspective of four well-known Biblical figures. The story takes place against a backdrop of rumour, fear and violence in Roman-occupied Judea.

The Liars’ Gospel opens as a lamb is  sacrificed in the temple. This is a daily sacred ritual in which blood is spilled for the glory of God. However, on this particular day, Roman soldiers invade the temple, “and everything that came afterwards followed from this”.

Spilling of blood

In Christian tradition, Jesus is the Lamb of God. He is the human sacrifice made to wash away the sins of the world. While the spilling of blood is a theme that runs throughout all four stories in The Liars’ Gospel, the symbolism is ambivalent. Readers will interpret the theme from their individual perspective, tradition and world view.

Naomi Alderman’s take is that none of her protagonists in The Liars’ Gospel believes that Jesus was other than “a wandering healer and teacher”. This is an occupation he shared with many of his contemporaries.

The story she tells, particularly from the perspectives of Miryam and Iehuda of Qeriot, is human and the historical context is vivid and colourful — even, at times, frightening.

Miryam, Yehoshuah’s mother, is torn between grief for the loss of her son and rage at his rejection of her. She tries to forget the troubled teenager who chose a new family of  followers above her. In common with the other protagonists in The Liars’ Gospel, Miryam has no sense that her eldest son is anything more than a  rebellious young man. Her attempt to connect with her wayward son goes against the wishes of his father, Yosef.  Ultimately, this contributes to the breakdown of her marriage.

For Iehuda of Qeriot, Yehoshuah was “his friend, the man he loved best in all the world”. This is because Yehoshuah is a father figure and teacher who took the place of the father Ieuhuda  had lost in childhood.

Struggling with faith

Of the four protagonists, Iehuda is perhaps the most interesting. This is because he struggles with his faith and conscience. There is an ambivalence throughout his account between what is true and what is false, what is said and what is felt.

Love and loyalty, betrayal and shame all play their part in an intricate and very human way. For example, Iehuda ultimately disguises himself to live as a Roman under the patronage of the wealthy Calidorus. In this role, he entertains guests with stories: “And while he tells this liar’s tale, Iehuda reminds himself of how it really was.”

The remaining two protagonists are Caiaphas, a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), a rebel leader. Caiaphas treads dangerously, balancing the demands of his priestly role with those of Rome

Naomi Alderman conjures a vivid and colourful world where political unrest is ever present and rumour thrives. The Liars Gospel is an unusual and thought-provoking read.

The Liars Gospel by Naomi Alderman is published by Viking, August 2012. ISBN: 978-0-670-91992-5.

If you like the sound of this novel, you might also like Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary.