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James T. KeaneDecember 13, 2022
Colm Tóibín (Wikimedia Commons) 

Fans of Colm Tóibín will no doubt be pleased at the news that he has a new book of essays coming out. A Guest at the Feast will be released next month, and promises to offer the Irish wordsmith’s reflections on some of the same themes and topics that have made him one of the preeminent authors in the English-speaking world. Americans might best know him from his novel Brooklyn, but for 32 years he has been steadily publishing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays.

Born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in Ireland (from which several of his fictional protagonists hail) in 1955, Tóibín moved to Barcelona in 1975 after graduating from University College Dublin. He lived in Spain until 1978, returning to Dublin and working as a writer and editor. His first novel, The South, was published in 1990.

In 2013, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., proposed Tóibín’s Mary as a good example of how the early Christians developed and defined their faith in an interreligious world.

He has published 10 novels and two short story collections and has authored or edited more than 20 non-fiction volumes. A number of his novels have won or been finalists for prominent literary awards, particularly 1999’s The Blackwater Lightship, 2004’s The Master, 2009’s Brooklyn (which was a Catholic Book Club selection in 2009; the film adaptation was reviewed in America by Michael V. Tueth, S.J., in 2016) and his controversial 2012 The Testament of Mary. His latest novel, 2021’s The Magician, was a portrait of the writer Thomas Mann and his family (America readers may enjoy this recent article by Franklin Freeman, revisiting Mann’s life and work).

A Guest at the Feast—a collection of previously published essays—promises Tóibín’s sharp takes on a number of topics and themes he has embraced before in both fiction and non, including the relationship between parents and children, how writers develop their themes in early life, the experience of growing up and living as a gay man in Ireland, his own 2018 bout with cancer (with a memorable first line not to be repeated here), the love/hate relationship the Irish have with the Catholic Church, what it is like to be an exile and more.

Tóibín’s fictional characters can be dark—in his 2006 short story collection, Mothers and Sons, the protagonist believes “that behind everything lay something else, a hidden motive perhaps, or something unimaginable and dark, that a person was merely a disguise for another person, that something said was merely a code for something else”—but they are always carefully detailed and multifaceted. The protagonist of Brooklyn, Ellis Lacy, is a simple woman from Enniscorthy when we first meet her; by the end of the novel she is one of the most psychologically complex and nuanced characters in recent literature.

“As an artist, Tóibín is a traditional storyteller, so sure a stylist that he pares his words to the minimum, so confident a plot-master that he can end a story without resolving the plot yet leave a reader fully satisfied,” wrote former America literary editor Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., in a 2012 review of Mothers and Sons.

Tóibín’s works have been reviewed time and again in America, but it was his 2012 novella The Testament of Mary that compelled numerous America commentators to weigh in. The narrator of the book is Mary the mother of Jesus, speaking long after Good Friday, and she guides the reader through her life with Jesus as well as her own existence as an aging woman in Ephesus surrounded by disciples of Jesus, whom she describes as “my protectors, or my guards, or whatever it is they are," as America editor Michael O'Loughlin noted in a 2012 essay.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell: "The inventions of tradition and bad art have provided us with too many impossible Marys who bear no relation to us. Do we need another?"

This is no silent and passive Mary, but a mother with complex feelings toward her son and his followers. She is by turns angry, bitter, resigned or unsure of her own recollections and convictions. Jesus’ friends, wrote Diane Scharper in a 2012 review in America, “want to invent a new religion that would establish her son as divine. But Mary won’t accept that.”

Instead, “Mary spends most of her time wondering whether she ever knew her son. When he was little, they were close, but then he fell in with a crowd of misfits. He became emotionally distant. She heard rumors that he healed a cripple and walked on water, but she can’t believe that such actions could be performed by the boy she raised,” Scharper wrote.

In a 2013 review of a play based on Tóibín’s novella, frequent America contributor Angela Alaimo O’Donnell praised Tóibín for “trying to deconstruct the images of the passive, bloodless Mary that dominated pietistic art of the 19th and 20th centuries,” but also confessed that “much as I admire his writing, I could not countenance his Mary.” What troubled O’Donnell? “After her son is nailed to the cross—a scene described in agonizing detail—Mary runs away. She runs away because she cannot help him, because she is afraid and (here is the hardest part to swallow) because she wants to save her own skin,” she wrote.

Tóibín’s fictional characters can be dark, but they are always carefully detailed and multifaceted.

No mother would run away while her son was being tortured and murdered, she argued—making Tóibín’s depiction of Mary as difficult to believe as any pious rendering in art: “The inventions of tradition and bad art have provided us with too many impossible Marys who bear no relation to us,” she continued. “Do we need another? Tóibín denies Mary what makes her most human, sinning at last against the law of verisimilitude, and giving us one more Mary we cannot believe in.”

Also in 2013, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., proposed Tóibín’s Mary as a good example of how the early Christians developed and defined their faith in an interreligious world. After all, Tóibín depicts Mary as visiting the temple of Artemis in Ephesus and talking with the Greek goddess. “Tóibín is unlikely to win any awards from the Church, or find his book for sale in the Vatican bookshop. He is, to be sure, not a Catholic theologian,” Clooney wrote. “But in the whole of the book, and in these brief moments where Artemis is mentioned, he perhaps catches something of an experience we need not entirely rule out in our own meditations on Mary.”

Why? Because even if “we for the most part accept the slow growth of Christian consciousness in the earliest Church, and even if we recognize, in theory at least, how it took a long time for the Gospels to be composed and finalized, perhaps we still are too confident about what this early period must have been like for those closest to Jesus, those who loved him most,” Clooney continued.

“So Mary is now the patron of interreligious humility and learning? Perhaps too much of a claim to make,” Clooney wrote. “But read The Testament and see what you think about Mary there, in the beginning, and Cana, and Artemis, when the mystery of Jesus was still stark and raw, and the Church had not yet found its language about its boundaries. At least imagine the possibilities before saying no.”

Francis X. Clooney, S.J.: “Tóibín is unlikely to win any awards from the Church," but "he perhaps catches something of an experience we need not entirely rule out in our own meditations on Mary.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “The Christmas Spectacular,” by America poetry editor Joseph Hoover, S.J. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

William Lynch, the greatest American Jesuit you’ve probably never heard of

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Christopher Lasch: the critic of American life beloved by traditionalist Catholics and Marxists alike

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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