In Toibin’s telling, the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda isn’t a story of spiritual healing but an example of the risks Jesus took by provoking his enemies, “creating a frenzy on the Sabbath.” Mary couldn’t care less whether “this idiot, half beggar, half imbecile” was really healed or not; she’s only concerned about her son. She feels the disorienting alarm of a parent watching her child grow into a reckless adult she can’t recognize. The people who follow him — “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers” — find his words exciting, but to her, his voice sounds “false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge.”
Other Gospel stories endure more radical revision, even as Toibin sometimes quotes famous lines from the Bible, its antique diction clashing weirdly with Toibin’s modern prose. Rather than a foreshadowing of the Resurrection, for instance, the raising of Lazarus becomes a ghoulish horror story. “No one should tamper with the fullness that is death,” Mary warns, as she describes a dazed man brought back from the grave only to lie in his darkened room, moaning and disoriented, a fright to everyone.
But even while attending to the alleged distortions of the Gospels, Toibin makes little effort to establish any kind of historical accuracy himself. Few of these scenes is graced with enough description to give us a full picture of the place or the time. His Mary rarely sounds like a poor 1st-century woman in the Roman Empire. She speaks in the lovely, super-literary phrases of a feminist who confidently rejects faith in Yahweh (or her son) in favor of a very hip paganism that the modern literati can sanction.
There’s a powerful, devastating story here about a mother angry at her son’s disregard for his own safety and even more disgusted at his friends’ determination to pretend that their ideals are more important than his life. Regardless of its religious drapery, her agony has a universal relevance. After all, brash young men are snuffed out and then glorified in propaganda during every generation’s wars. Good mothers know they’re expected to sanction that celebration. But some Christians may justifiably feel assailed by this book’s resounding claim that the central event of their faith was, in Mary words, “not worth it.”
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
At 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 13, Colm Toibin will be at the Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919.