This year's season of literary prizes kicked off last week with Canadian short story writer Alice Munro's Nobel Prize win in Literature. The announcement has been widely hailed as a triumph for the short story, an often overlooked literary form that Munro herself once considered as merely a way to practice for a novel. While Munro, and the world, celebrate the art of the short story, on Tuesday, the winner will be announced for one of the world's most prestigious literary awards for novels: the Man Booker Prize.
The shortlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize has been lauded for its diversity — its authors and subjects span five continents, it includes a debut (We Need New Names) and a possible last novel (The Harvest), and celebrates young and seasoned authors alike (Eleanor Catton is 28, Jim Crace 67). But perhaps its most notable innovation is the inclusion of Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, a slim masterpiece that clocks in at 81 pages as the shortest novel ever to be short-listed.
Unlike similar literary prizes, the Booker Prize is specifically awarded to "the best novel of the year." The nominations and shortlists are not only a judgment of literary merit but a declaration of what a novel is, and can be. Discussing the shortlist, chair of judges Robert Macfarlane said, “We were drawn to novels that sought to extend the possibilities of the form ... we wanted novel novels.” The Testament of Mary is certainly novel in that sense — not only in the story it dares to tell, but also in how much it manages to say with so little words.
The Testament of Mary is a bold and terribly courageous work. It reimagines one of the most-told stories in history — the story of Jesus's crucifixion — through the eyes of a grieving mother, Mary. As strange and new as this territory may seem, Toibin has written about mothers and sons before, and in his hands Mary and her son become heart-breakingly mortal. When Jesus attracts attention from the authorities for his growing following, Mary becomes worried as a mother of any problem child would be, and thinks of how her child has become a stranger to her. Mary speaks about time time as many mothers do: it is a thing "that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy's fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own words and thoughts and secret feelings." In this sense, Testament of Mary can be seen as a logical extension of Toibin's work, a extreme treatment of a theme with which he is obsessed, and perhaps his most eternal rendering of the subject yet.
Despite being short, The Testament of Mary is indelible. Though it is undoubtedly sacrilegious — Mary not only denies the virgin birth but says to the apostles that visit her, "When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it" — it's final message does not feel political or subversive, but rather deeply human. The prose is so haunting that in the days after I read it I found that Toibin's story of the crucifixion had already mixed in my mind with Matthew's story, and Luke's, and John's, and Paul's. If 81 pages of words that become sentences can enter so seamlessly into my imagination of the world, I am happy to call it a novel. As Booker judge Robert Douglas-Fairhurst put it, "It is a short novel but ... long in the memory."
The novel's brevity works beautifully to complement the manifold versions of this story that many of us have already heard. In every white space, in every omitted line, Toibin invites the reader to recall the text of the Bible and remember that there is an ocean between Mary's impulse to tell the story of her son and the agenda of the Gospels' writers: "I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw," Toibin/Mary writes. "I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to."
Toibin, who has been short-listed for the Booker twice before, is unfazed by the nomination. When asked, he noted that he hoped the extra attention wouldn't cause trouble with his neighbors in Ireland, who are quite Catholic. "There is no such thing as a novella," he joked about the length. "A novella is something that no one reads ... something you don't foist on a publisher." And yet, no one has called this novella-length work a novella, perhaps because it feels like so much more. The book, which has been adapted into a Tony-nominated play, takes place in the moment of a breath. "This woman has found a time to speak," Toibin said, "and she will not speak again."
If Munro's Nobel win last week was a triumph for the short story, then Toibin's Booker win tomorrow would be a triumph for the short novel, a second literary affirmation of less-is-more. Long books carry an obvious heft. Short stories and short novels must prove their worth, and whether it wins tomorrow or not, The Testament of Mary has certainly done this.