Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Testament of Mary

Colm  Toibin

There are more portraits of the Virgin Mary than of any other woman in the world and all of them portray her as passive and submissive.  Colm Toibin has written a book about a different Mary, one who is resentful, defiant, broken-hearted, lonely and guilt-ridden.  No wonder it is controversial.

Mary’s darling son, the joy of her life, has given up his job and taken to roaming the countryside, disturbing the peace with a band of grown hobbledehoys.  When she meets him at a wedding in Cana, he says to her, “Woman, what have I to do with you?” How is a mother to feel?

This is Mary’s version of events, not a gospel, because Toibin thinks that she did not believe that Jesus was the son of God.  He was her beloved son and he moved away from her.  She watched him tortured and killed on a cross and she had to flee her home and die in a foreign land because of the persecution of his followers.  Even though the disciples now tell her that Jesus has saved the world, she retains the image of her son’s tragic death and she says, “It was not worth it.”

As Toibin recreates the time, the culture and Mary’s state of mind, he changes some events as they are traditionally told.  He thinks that the bloodlust of the crowd at the cross would have made it unsafe for Mary and the other women to stay with Jesus until the end.  He also takes a new look at the miracles that took place close to Nazareth, which Mary would have known about.  At the wedding in Cana, why did the host run out of wine?  Because there were so many uninvited guests, the followers of Jesus.  It behooved Jesus to rescue the host from his embarrassment.  The family of Lazarus were good friends of Mary’s family.  Jesus was too busy preaching to come to the bedside of Lazarus, his childhood friend who was suffering, according to Toibin, from intolerable headaches.  When Jesus raised his friend from death, the pains continued and furthermore, he had to deal with the reactions of his friends.  What exactly do you say to someone who has returned from the other side?

All mothers know the pain of separation as their loving and dependent little boys grow to be independent, unrecognizably adult men inhabiting a different world.  Mary is no different and furthermore, she has witnessed her son’s tragic death which has left her scarred and bitter, with no patience for the men who encouraged his intransigence.

We know that after Jesus’ death, it took the disciples, with help from Paul, some years to make sense of his life and teaching.  Christian orthodoxy says that these men were inspired.  Toibin suggests that not all of their conclusions were based on the truth as Mary saw it.

Reviews of this book vary greatly depending on reviewers’ Christian beliefs.  The most critical don’t even acknowledge Toibin’s sensitivity and fine writing.  They do not mention the consistency of Mary’s voice, the urgent flow of the storytelling or the perception of the characters.  I would like to hear more discussion about Marcus, a cousin of Mary’s who seeks her out in order to betray her.  To me, this is an unbelievable scenario which is not fully explained.

To those of us who have been over-exposed to sentimental Christmas cards and Great Master’s paintings in churches and museums, all of which serve to manipulate Mary into a model of female behaviour according to a patriarchal society, much of the thesis of this book is refreshing.  It is clever, original and well-written, but there is no doubt that Toibin takes delight in stirring up controversy and challenging the androcentrism of Christian teaching.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley


P.D. James


What an amazing woman is P.D. James.  She was born in 1920, the same year as my mother, and here she is, still writing international bestsellers.  This book was recommended to me by a friend, and when I saw it in the boutique of the local hospital auxiliary for $3.00, I snapped it up.  The next day I came down with a miserable winter cold, went to bed and read Death Comes to Pemberley in a day!

Take yourself back to the day you read the last page of Pride and Prejudice and remember all your hopes and worries for your favourite characters.  Did Mr. Darcy live up to expectations?  Did the vapid Mr. Bingley really make Jane happy?  What about Lydia and Mr. Wickham's further adventures?  Surely their elopement would be followed by other colourful adventures.

In Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James has given us the answer to all our questions and tossed in a murder mystery, of course.  All the mannerisms and tedious niceties of early 19th century society are recreated in Jane Austen style.  The tone of Pride and Prejudice lives on, as does the slow pace, however the plot driver is not the acquisition of suitable husbands but the solution of a mystery.  The action moves from the salons to the saloons and gives us a peek at nineteenth century justice.

Much of the action takes place in the dark and menacing woods of Mr. Darcy's Pemberley estate.  A body is found there, and the infamous Mr. Wickham, a sure troublemaker, seems to be responsible for the death.  Servant girls claim that there have been mysterious visitors to the woods, and a secluded cottage there, the site of the suicide of a Darcy ancestor, is now inhabited by an unwed mother and her terminally ill brother.

Clues are scattered and eventually reassembled to form a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery, and we have the pleasure of following our favourite characters through an exciting interlude in their domestic humdrum.  Indeed, Misters Bingley and Darcy have proved to be satisfactory husbands, the nurseries are full of the pitter-patter, and Elizabeth admits to enjoying her great wealth.  In fact, we feel considerable sympathy for these families so burdened by their great estates that they must spend their lives looking after their inheritances and their servants, giving traditional balls and fulfilling expectations.  Noblesse Oblige!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowlings

As I began to read this book, I found myself searching for the author of Harry Potter.  When I finally resorted to a crib list to keep track of the multitude of characters, I missed the accessible writer who has led millions of children to enjoy reading with her easily-followed plots.  And as I encountered a cast of unlikeable people, I missed the sympathetic, easy-to-like Harry, Ron and Hermione.   Is  J.K. Rowling really a mean-spirited woman who can tell us nothing but nasty secrets about her cast of characters assembled in a seemingly idyllic English village with the Black Cannon Pub and the ancient church grouped around the village square?  Is she on a vendetta to destroy a stereotype?  Is she tired of being nice?  Is this the real her? 

Nevertheless, I kept reading because Rowling is a master storyteller and a skillful writer. And gradually I discovered the familiar author. 

She is there with the children in the village, much more compelling characters than the adults.  She is saying that without magic, this could have been the life of the orphaned Harry Potter.  She is saying that in real life, if children are not adequately loved and nurtured, challenged and supported, they can get into big trouble.  She is saying that children can be horrible to each other, but they can also be a support and provide personal growth. 

As the plot grew ever more sprawling and the many characters grew ever more complex, I began to wonder how Rawlings was ever going to bring her tale to a conclusion.  And then I discovered the author of Harry Potter again.  Except that the exciting nail-biters which ended the children's books sounded melodramatic in this book for adults.  Not that I don't like melodrama.  I was on the edge of my chair as I read the concluding chapters of this book. Once again, the concluding events in the plot surrounding the children rang true.  Their paths were leading to disaster, and it would take a momentous event to be a wake-up call to the adults who were to blame in avoiding serious issues with their children.  But the rip-roaring drunk of a party with all proprieties broken, while fun to read, was too obviously a wrap-up event for the miscellaneous sub-plots from which Rowlings needed to extricate herself. 

The adults are not entirely unsympathetic.  Rowlings cleverly ties the adult and child plots together at the end when several of the adult characters pass by little Robbie who is lost, dirty and crying.  Lest anyone doubt the theme of the book, it is here with these self-absorbed adults ignoring the needs of the child and refusing to acknowledge that all children are their responsibility.  But guilt and compunction do visit these adults after Robbie's death and we hope that the village will be a kinder, less self-satisfied place after the horrifying ending of the book. 

Read this book.  You will enjoy it, and you will find yourself thinking about its theme long after you are finished.  But it takes some persistence to get into it and some sang-froid to follow the affairs of the variously unlikeable adults who people its pages.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of An Ending

Julian Barnes

This book won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the biggest prize in English literature, so one sets a high standard when reviewing it.  The question is always there:  "Why did this book succeed?"

It is a 'coming of age' novel' in a new sense.    The first few chapters are set in a boy's school and are full of the usual schoolboy concerns about girls and friendships and report cards.  But then the writer switches to a different coming of age - old age.  This is a babyboomer's novel, and maybe that is why it appealed to the jury.  As mature adults are wont to do, Tony, the narrator, looks back at his young self, wondering what those bygone days can tell him about who he has been and what perspective they can bring to his life, now that it is mostly behind him.

The pivotal event in the book is the receiving of a legacy from the mother of an old girlfriend.  This intriguing event leads Tony to revisit that relationship from the perspective of age and subsequent events.  This is a babyboomer's exercise, the reworking of memory, using the knowledge gained from a lifetime of experience.

Further than that, it is hard to say what other qualities make this book exceptional.  There is not much plot, and none of the characters are particularly likeable.  Tony, the narrator, has not had a very interesting life and is not a particularly attractive character.

Veronica, the girlfriend, turns out to be quite different from Tony's perception of her, and Barnes underlines this by giving her a different name.  At the end of the novel, we must rethink all the events of the plot from a different perspective.

This is the theme of the book, the tragedy of judging without knowing the whole story.  But it is difficult to condemn Tony, who responded to information available to him at the time.  There is no way that he could have been expected to know about Veronica's sad situation.  She never treated him considerately so he had no motivation to be more sensitive.   I think this is the problem with the book.  At the end, when Veronica's story is revealed, we have not developed any sympathy for her, so we don't respond strongly .  We cannot condemn Tony, so there is no deep emotional shift.

The tone is nicely understated and introspective.  The structure is well balanced, with a schooldays event repeated in the body of the story.  This is a nice foreshadowing of a pivotal event.  Structurally, the book is well written, it is short and well- paced, and Barnes writes reflectively, inviting his reader to join him in contemplating the nature of contempt, remorse, resentment, and other emotions experienced throughout a lifetime. The nature and reliability of memory and the authenticity  of historical accounts are problems probed and pondered.

The Sense of an Ending is a pleasant, reflective read, with a certain suspense and a lingering bemusement, but is this really the best book written in the English language this year?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Woman Among Warlords

A Woman Among Warlords

Malalai Joya

This book takes a one-sided and firm position on the current situation in Afghanistan, which is that Afghans are perfectly able to manage their own affairs, and would like all meddling countries OUT. The author, Malalai Joya, speaks so coherently and knowledgeably that she has quite turned around my thinking on Afghanistan. I have read other books recounting individual tragedies in this turbulent country, but Malalai speaks on behalf of the ordinary people of Afghanistan. She is their champion and spokesperson.

Malalai speaks from her heart, and it is a brave heart indeed. She has dared to denounce the warlords who are members of the present government put in place by NATO. An elected member of the Loya Jirga (Afghan government), she has been prevented from taking her seat by the warlords who form the majority of the present government. She is constantly in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house. Nevertheless, women and persecuted minorities find her and tell her their stories which she publicizes through her support groups in democratic countries around the world.

Malalai criticizes freely the NATO forces which installed the weak puppet, Hamid Karzai, and his corrupt government, and for this reason she is not liked by governments which support sending armed forces to Afghanistan. In her fight for an independent Afghanistan, she singles out individuals and names names relentlessly. She is very well informed on the history and leaders of her country. She knows that she could be assassinated at any time, and she is in a hurry to achieve as much as she can in the effort to create a free democracy in her country.

The book is full of interesting accounts of famous people and little-known events. Benazir Bhutto is known as the Mother of the Taliban because of the support she gave them as part of her tactic to oppose Indian influence in the area. Laura Bush’s comments on the achievements wrought by the Americans are quoted fully, remarks based on observations she made during visits which lasted six hours. Schoolbooks printed at the University of Nebraska for Afghan children, which are still in use today, are filled with talk of jihad and teach children to count using illustrations of tanks, missiles and landmines.

Malalai tells countless stories about the mistreatment of women in her country. Her statistics as well as accounts of individual experiences is shocking. All the world has heard similar accounts, but Malalai is angered when they are used to justify the invasion of her country. Women and children are abused in many countries, but it is only when there are financial or strategic incentives that there is an invasion.

One of Malalai’s targets are lazy Western journalists who rarely challenge the fables spun to them and insist that Afghanistan has always been ungovernable and needs Western direction. In fact, the first modern ruler of Afghanistan, King Amanullah Khan who won independence from Britain in 1919 was a freedom-loving and democratic leader. During his rule, education was compulsory for every Afghan child, religious, racial and linguistic discrimination were outlawed, and women were encouraged to integrate fully into society. The British sowed a revolt against Amanullah because they were afraid of having a modern independent country next to India which they still ruled, and he was overthrown. As his successor, the British supported the dark-minded and ignorant Habibullah, and after his murder, the brutal Nadir Shah. Subsequently, Afghanistan was invaded by the Russians and then the Americans. Malalai’s main theme is that without NATO’s support of corrupt warlords, and other malign interference, Afghans are well able to sort out their own country. Those unable to read her book can consult her website: www. But the website does not have the impact of the book which is dominated by Malalai’s strong personality and countless incidents showing her bravery in her mission to give voice to the ordinary people of Afghanistan.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pearl by Mary Gordon

Pearl  by Mary Gordon

I have a problem with the voice in this book.  It should be classified as omniscient third person, but the narrator intrudes him/herself into the story with the voice of a storyteller.  And yet this storyteller is unidentified, so I couldn’t classify his perspective.  This produced for me an impersonality which was one of the reasons why I found it hard to sympathize or involve myself with the characters, or the plot for that matter.  When a story is told by a storyteller, we are used to hearing a spoken voice or seeing a face, and then we can identify with his perspective.  But as this storyteller is impersonal, so I responded impersonally to the story.

Another reason why I found it hard to involve myself with the characters is that they are all so difficult to like, by me or by the storyteller.  So I didn’t really care whether they lived or died.

The plot turns around the 20-year-old Pearl, who has an impossible mother and loser friends and has been a difficult teenager.  When she is accused of being responsible for the death of a young man, and realizes subsequently that the world is full of people who cause harm to one another, she decides to martyr herself to make a statement about the presence of evil in the world.  This is an interesting theory and response, but because Pearl is so obviously immature and psychologically damaged by her mother, uprooted, insecure and impressionable, we dismiss the whole thesis as a personal difficulty in dealing with guilt, without thinking of martyrdom’s  proven efficacy  as in the cases of Gandhi’s hunger strikes and Mohamed Bouazizi  in Tunisia, or the Cambodian monks in the Vietnam War.

Ultimately, I was disappointed by the plot.  Pearl tried to kill herself because of “the human will to harm, in all its shapes, all its varieties… (and) a world where the desire to harm was the most true thing that could be said about it.”  (p.174) She wanted to be a “witness.“   But as the plot unwound, this issue was never resolved.  The theme of the presence of evil in the world was diverted and diluted.   A new theme was introduced:  Pearl ‘s health was restored by the possibility of forgiveness, which is quite a different concept.  When  Pearl received helium balloons from Breeda, the mother of the boy whose death she had possibly caused, she felt healed because she was forgiven.  Worse still, Breeda suggests that Pearl was not responsible for the death.  So my anticipation that the book would end with a resolution of how to deal with guilt and the evil in the world is all sloughed off with an easy glorification of the merits of forgiveness, and is further diffused by the annulment of the whole issue of guilt as Pearl is relinquished from its load.  (The question of how the impoverished Breeda could have afforded balloons, and why she did not reach out her reassurance to Pearl while she was at the American embassy, before her health deteriorated to such a critical state, after all, we are told that she watched TV all day, so she would have seen Pearl on the news, all these details are evidence to me of a poorly constructed plot.) The ending was much too easy.  Pearl and Maria are reconciled, Joseph goes back to his old life, and Pearl relinquishes her deathwish.

Following the strong indications at the beginning of the book that the theme would be the question of how to expiate guilt and be a living witness against the universal power to harm, I was disappointed with the easy and convenient ending.  The original themes are much more familiar to the characters in the book, who are all Roman Catholics or lapsed Jews.

The impact of the ending is further weakened by the crisis of Joseph.  If the author wanted to examine the emotional states of all three of her main characters, she should have dealt with them more evenly throughout the narrative.  Joseph’s extraordinary explosion, his bizarre solution and his sudden return to normalcy serve to drag out the ending rather than flesh out his character, and left me feeling impatient rather than sympathetic.

My strongest response was to Pearl’s mother, Maria, who is quite a piece of work.  Gordon made her a product of a background that she herself knows well.  Like her character, Mary Gordon was born in New York to a Catholic mother and a father who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, was raised in a strict religious environment and at one time considered becoming a nun.  Maria’s problems stem in part from the strict Catholicism of her youth, her motherless home, and the turbulent, faith-destroying politics of the 60s.  She is unlikable because she has no sense of limits and was cruel to her father, one of the two people who ever loved her. Early on, it is evident to the reader that Pearl’s rejection of her is a mirror of her own treatment of her father. One reason why Maria is hard to like is that her hubris prevents her from making this connection until the last chapter.  However, Gordon seems fond, even admiring, of Maria, and the redemption at the end of the book is as much of Maria as it is of Pearl.

Gordon scatters the pieces of her characters throughout her plot and we piece together the jigsaw and realize their complexity.  Pearl is barely more than a child, but Maria and Joseph are full of interesting contradictions and personal challenges.  The minor characters in Dublin are well drawn.  We are repelled my Mick, so dangerously full of his own importance in the small pond where he has chosen to be the big fish.  We are scared by the narrowness and certainty of Finbar’s vision and his capacity to destroy.  We are moved by the humbleness of Breeda who recognizes truth through her simplicity.

Gordon’s  writing style is not easy to read, littered as it is by obtuse lines like,  “His mind is a muscle whose existence makes itself felt only on account of, or in rebellion against, overuse.”  But she is a master of original imagery and observant, precisely worded descriptions.  There are some wise passages and some big questions that demand our response.   Read in excerpts, the prose is beautiful and the concepts challenging.  Maria prompts us to think about how to be a good mother.  Joseph makes us ask how one can balance responsibility to others with the fulfilment of our own dreams.  Pearl (before her plot petered out) challenges us to accept that we can be flawed and also have value.  Pearl asks Maria, “Why is it life that we want?” and we ponder her answer, ”It seems we’re meant to.”

But taken as a whole,  I find the plot is poorly constructed,  the characters universally unsympathetic and the diversity of the issues unfocused.