I can say, with some confidence, that had this book not been chosen by my Book Group I would have been very unlikely to have read it. However, I was glad it was chosen as I felt that there was a gap in my reading, in that I had not tried the work of Colm Toibin before.
He is clearly a writer of considerable skill. His output has been prodigious, in prose and in poetry, and generally highly regarded. Indeed, he was listed as on the the top 300 British intellectuals by The Observer newspaper.
While the novel did give me a glimpse of this ability it was overwhelmed by the negative feelings the book invokes. I read that Colm Toibin writes in quite austere conditions seated on a hard, uncomfortable chair. I can believe this as the discomfort and misery seems to have been channelled into this story. This is the story of Mary as an angry misanthrope. Discard any ideas you may have had of the saintly Mary, and ideas of Mary as the epitome of motherhood. This is Mary as a very earthly mother, a mother replete with faults and angry and exasperated by her son.
This mother doubts her son’s miracles, despises his followers (all ‘misfits, fools and stammerers’, men unable to look a woman in the eye) and hostile to those who she feels are glorifying his history. She has turned her back on him. In the past; by denying his divinity, in the present; by literally turning her back as she flees the hill and his crucifixion, and in the future; by attempting to confound the writers of the gospels. In the final pages she turns her back not only on the man but also becomes an apostate switching to a new life and faith with Artemis.
This book clearly intended to be controversial and iconoclastic. However, it is brief and without substance; there is no revelation in its attack, nothing new is uncovered, no alternative vision is offered. The only thing made clear is that the writer has problems with his Catholic heritage.
This is iconoclastic in the same way that drawing spectacles or black teeth on a picture of the Madonna would damage the icon. Iconoclastic but also a waste of time, to borrow a phrase “It is not worth it”.