Testament of Mariam
I’d been intrigued by this book for some time. I had spoken to Ann via social media, where I had been introduced to her by a friend, and of the numerous books Ann has released, this one particularly piqued my interest early on. And so I bought it and added it to my reading list, awaiting the time when I had a free week or so in my reading schedule.
The story? The story is simple. When the Emperor Constantine and his various bishops sat in their council chamber and decided what stories of the Christian sect would go into the official Bible, they selected many bits and pieces, letters and visions and so forth, but they chose only four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But a gospel is simply a memoir by one of the people who knew Jesus, and so with those four they included, think on how many gospels they discarded, including the ones of the other disciples. I have oft heard of various apocryphal gospels and been intrigued as to what other views of the figure ‘Jesus’ they might have given us.
Well, the Testament of Mariam is a fictional gospel. Narrated by the ageing matriarch of a farming family in Gallia Narbonensis, it soon becomes clear that this old woman who now lives in a Roman world with a family and farm of her own was once a very different person, living an impoverished life in Gallilee with a sizeable family, one of whom was destined to change the world.
For this is a tale of Jesus (Yeshua in his own tongue) from his youth to his last days, told by a sister history does not document. Mariam gives us a view of the Jesus with whom anyone brought up in the Christian world is familiar, but with a refreshing new angle. The stories we all know are all in there, but given new – and infinitely more realistic – light as Swinfen unfolds the magic and lays it out in the form of a real life.
Enough, then, of the story. What of the writing? I have long held only two writers to have an ability with prose that surpasses even the highest of literary standards. Guy Gavriel Kay remains my writing idol, and the wonderful Prue Batten uses language that makes her works feel like reading silk. Well, I think Ann Swinfen will join them now to make a trio.
The prose is simply delightful, and threaded throughout with detail that many authors miss, along with a heady, exotic taste of the lands of the ancient Levant. The names of people and places are all given in an authentic tongue, and throughout, care is paid to keeping them within a genuine historical environment and mindset.
Perhaps what I liked most about this read, and what kept me coming back to it, though, was the investigation I felt I was carrying out as I read. Not only was I slowly piecing together who the characters in the novel were in terms of Biblical text (given the language changes) but I was starting soon to watch out for famous scenes of Jesus’ life and spotting them in this more realistic setting. That was a wonderful aspect of the book.
One of my current bugbears in books is use of tenses. I find first-person, present tense narrative tiring and difficult, and regular changes in tense to be jarring. Strangely, this does both at times, and yet still flows gracefully and at no point deterred me. In fact, from the second chapter on, I found it helpful.
In short, then, this is a delight of a novel. If what you seek in your historical fiction is sword-maimings and glorious sieges, then this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you love to immerse yourself in a lost culture, or want to see the New Testament from a new and refreshing angle, I would recommend The Testament of Mariam.