This is only the second book I’ve managed on my Booker Longlist challenge of 2013. And, like the first, it’s a book that I wouldn’t necessarily have bothered to read, had I not decided to set myself this possibly ludicrous and definitely arbitrary target of making it through the Booker Dozen. It’s the shortest ever novel to make it to the Booker shortlist (indeed, at 104 pages, it only just scrapes over the eligibility line for the Cannonball Read) and it’s a nice bit of symmetry that this year’s eventual winner was the longest ever to be shortlisted (and is firmly earmarked for my Year of Big Books in 2014).
It’s a brilliant idea. Taking the most famous story ever told and re-telling it in a monologue of a furious and grief stricken mother. Mary is a helpless bystander, here given centre stage and it’s a gorgeous, heartrending and lyrical outpouring. Given its brevity, Toibin covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. Thanks to its recent Broadway staging, I couldn’t help but read it in the voice of Fiona Shaw though.
This might be an odd thing to say, but when I was reading it I couldn’t help but think the best way to describe this slim novel is as a Biblical Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Mary is hardly as unimportant as those two bit players, but in the story of Jesus and his crucifixion, the human element is never really focussed on (not even by Mel Sodding Gibson). Toibin has unequivocally made this a human story. Even if you don’t have a religious bone in your body (and I don’t), this painful, beautiful piece of writing is still worth your time. A quick read, but by no means an easy one.