Leda and the New Testament?: new in bookstores

The Virgin Mother's been called some unusual things: I've heard her likened to the Egyptian goddess Isis. I've read comparisons of her to the Greek maiden Leda (both, the comparison goes, conceived after a divine encounter). I suppose I expected something just as startling or subversive in a new short book by Colm Toibin, "The Testament of Mary," published by Scribner this month.

In a way, this is just what happened - although not in the way that I expected.

Toibin gives us a portrait of the mother of Jesus in her heartbroken old age: living in Ephesus, visited (and harassed) by the Gospel writers who want her to corroborate the story of Jesus that they're writing. One of them scowls at her "when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained."

What does she think of her son's disciples?

They're nothing but "a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye."

This book started as a dramatic monologue performed before Dublin audiences, and all I could think was: Well, I wonder what people in the world's most Catholic nation think of this!

After all, Mary's not the figure of the Pieta, holding the body of her son after he is taken off the cross: She flees, terrified for her life.  There are many more provocative revelations -- but I won't spoil them -- all rendered in Toibin's characteristically beautiful, lyrical prose.

In the end, Toibin gives us a Mary who isn't Isis, or Leda. She's not a figure surrounded by stained-glass or stretching across the ceiling of countless church domes. Toibin's testament presents us with someone far more powerful and easier to understand: A mother. Toibin's Mary is human, all too human.