A Gorgeous Tale
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 Galilee 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.
Readers’ Favorite Review
The Testament of Mariam by Ann Swinfen is a beautiful story with a distinctive voice that will haunt readers for a long time after finishing this book. The story takes you back in time with Mariam reminiscing about her youth and how it was to be the sister of Jesus and engaged to Yehuda. She shares stories about the problems faced by her family, her brother’s death, and other struggles she undergoes while growing up. The story throws insight on how Mariam is promised to Yeshua’s (Jesus’) best friend, Judas and the betrayal that happens. The book makes us feel sad for Mariam and Judas, and one feels a strong compassion for these three characters; Mariam, Judas and Yeshua.
It is a hauntingly beautiful story taken from biblical events that will keep readers glued to the tale. The author’s interpretation of biblical events gives a unique perspective to the story and the characters will make readers question the truth in the biblical tales they have read earlier. The narration is detailed and the portrayal of characters and the way the story evolves and progresses will draw you into the book. The style of writing is exquisite with some wonderful imagery. The author has done good research and the book does not sound preachy at all. Without looking at the historical angle, the story will still fascinate readers with its strong heroine, her heart-breaking choices and sacrifices. The plot also throws a different light on the gospels. It is a story that will fascinate both Christians and non-Christians alike.
I finished The Testament of Mariam two weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my mind–I think at some level it will always be there. It’s extremely good just as a piece of writing, but it is as an alternative view of a history we all think we know well that it really shines. Ann Swinfen has written the gospels–the story of Jesus’s life–from the point of view of his sister Mariam who, in this version (and who are we to know differently?) was with him and with Judas all through the period from when he left home to his death on the cross. There isn’t a moment when you think, “No, no, that couldn’t be. It couldn’t have happened like that”–the author’s skill is enough to take us deep into Mariam’s version of events and make us think, “Yes. Yes. That’s how it must have been.” Recommended with all my heart.
Wow, what a book!
Set in the 1st century in Galilee in lands that still exist this is a fictional depiction of (what may have been) real life events. Normally I wouldn’t bother reading a book with such an iconic religious story attached to it and I’m not quite sure how I came across this book but I am so very glad I did. The reviews have already been brilliant for this book so I ‘looked inside’ and was engrossed by the first few words, sentences and paragraphs and was already thinking 5*.
The style of writing is quite delicious, you can taste the atmosphere of 1st Century Galilee family, their work, the children, the social attitudes of the time but it is not so archaic that a modern reader can’t understand it. The political turmoil of the time is brilliantly depicted, class attitudes, rich against poor, soldiers of the mighty Romans against the oppressed people who live in the land.
Mariam is the sister of Yeshûa and we follow her journey following his journey through the lands spreading the word. The names were a little difficult to comprehend to begin with but in a very short while you became used to them and they added to the reality of the times.
After the crucifixion of Yeshûa Mariam has to flee the country and we join her in her last days as she recalls her life as a young girl growing up with a brother who was always different, she makes the decision to follow him on his travels. She kept her family and her roots secret until her dying day when at the end she is sought out by a stranger who delivers her a message.
This story and the characters in this book stayed with me in waking moments, restful moments, always in the back of my mind, like an addiction until I was able to pick my Kindle up again and carry on reading to the end. In fact I could believe this was a true story rather than a work of fiction.
I’m certainly going to read more of this author.
A Marvelous Historical Novel
This is easily one of the best books I’ve read in 2013. It is the story of Jesus as told by his sister, Mariam. It is one of those historical novels that absolutely feels right–the tone, the level of detail, the dialogue, the themes, and the perspectives all ring true. I loved reading about the life in a Jewish village in Gallilee, circa 2000 years ago. And the story was fresh and interesting, being told from a woman’s perspective and a sibling’s perspective.
Yeshûa is the oldest in a large family, and Mariam is twelve years younger. She adores her older brother, and struggles to understand how his “mission” must take him away from her and her family and their village. It was lovely to read scenes that I know from the Bible being presented in a very natural, non-stilted way.
The story is told by Mariam when she is an old woman, living with her children and grandchildren in Massilia (modern Marseilles), where she fled after her brother was killed. She had been part of his inner circle, and he had made preparations for her to leave the region after he was arrested.
It took me until mid-way through to realize that Yehûdâ, Mariam’s betrothed and Yeshûa’s best and oldest friend, was Judas Iscariot. Once I realized this, the entire novel took on an even more melancholy but deeper tone. I did a little internet reading about the Gospel of Judas, and that made the novel make even more sense to me.
I absolutely loved reading this book–it is extremely well-written, well-researched, and balanced. It never felt preachy, but it conveyed perfectly for me the idea of Jesus’s messsage of love and hope, reverence for God and nature, and compassion and community.
Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, it is a marvelous historical novel with a strong, believable heroine whose choices and sacrifices are both heart-breaking and ennobling.
Recommended for Historical Fiction lovers, Christians and atheists
The Testament of Mariam is a fascinating and very clever novel which would appeal both those who follow Christianity and those who don’t. This is a superb historical novel which successfully transports us to life in First Century Galilee and Gaul. Dusty, sun-baked and oppressed to different degrees by the Romans, the landscape of the Swinfen’s novel is a character in its own right. Told from the point of view of Mariam, the elderly – and now dying – sister of Jesus, this imaginative and quiet novel almost underplays the most retold story of the Western world as we follow Mariam from her home village in Galilee to the vine-clad slopes of Gaul. Thoroughly researched, the novel explains some of the most glaring exaggerations of the Christ-story and provides an excellent twist to the role played by Judas in the betrayal of Jesus. Thoroughly recommended to Historical Fiction lovers, Christians and atheists alike.
Compelling story, beautifully told.
“Hauntingly beautiful in both story and delivery, The Testament of Miriam will remain in your thoughts long after your first reading. Swinfen presents the Roman world of the 1st century with imagery and lyricism so compelling you are swept headlong into a closely plotted revelation of mysteries central to Western culture.
As Miriam nears the end of her life far from her native land, she reviews her early years in Judea, where determined loyalty to family and friends pulled her into events that changed the history of the world. Swinfen’s unique interpretation of these events is so plausible, so logical, that the reader is forced to consider them and, perhaps, to see the early years of Christianity in a new light.
The Testament of Miriam is a book to mull over, to read again, and to embrace for its fine writing as well as its clever and thought-provoking story. It is a book to treasure.”
A thought provoking and truly absorbing read.
“This gripping narrative is based on the premise that Yeshûa (Jesus) had a sister, Mariam, a rebellious, fiercely independent and devoted sibling.
In a series of flashbacks, Mariam, now an elderly and dying woman, tells the story of her growing up with her brother, her decision to follow him on his mission and her final witnessing of his death.
It is an extraordinary story operating on both intimately personal and universal levels. The author’s authentic creation of settings, together with her description of details of day-to-day life in first century, Roman occupied Judah, bear witness to scrupulous research.
Deceptively simple and direct in style, the narrative has the capacity to engage the reader’s deepest emotions. A thought provoking and truly absorbing read.”
Merging Fact with Fiction
“Mixing the known with the fictional and making the resulting story not only believable and compelling but also with an integrity all its own is no mean feat. But in her latest novel, writer and academic Ann Swinfen has taken what has often been called the greatest story ever told…and given it a place, a context in history and in the human heart that opens up a new world of thought-provoking story-telling. The Testament of Mariam is set in the distant world of the first century, in lands that…still do exist, and is a tale peopled by real figures and their fictional counterparts whose lives and times come together to create a compelling vision of what was and what might have been. It also, in its scope and vision, holds up a mirror to the present day and the continuing turbulence of a world in almost continuous transition…Her writing…[paints] an amazingly detailed and vibrant picture of flesh and blood human beings, not only the symbols many of them have become…but real and believable and understandable.”
—Helen Brown, Courier and Advertiser
Engrossing and Moving
“I admit I was curious as to how the author, in writing about a very human Yeshûa (Jesus), would deal with Biblical events such as the miracles. But it all fell wonderfully, believably, into place. I had read about Jesus allegedly spending time with the Essene community of Qumran where he would have learned medical skills – does this mean the curing of the sick, the blind, the leper were acts of a physician, not miracles? – you decide.
As the dying Mariam, sister of Jesus, goes back over past events in the far-off Galilee where she grew up in a large family, you feel that you are living this well-loved story from a totally different perspective, but that is not to say that you are ever asked to abandon your faith in Jesus the Son of God. It is just that you see Him as a man who has fears, doubts and misgivings, which only serves to make His final sacrifice more precious. The novel resonates with love: the love Mariam has for a brother she has always known to be special; the love of Yehûdâ (Judas) for his friend (I have always believed that the Betrayal was not of Judas’ design) and Yehûdâ’s love for Mariam; the love of the woman they called The Magdalene; the love of the disciples for their Master; and of course, the love above all other of Jesus for mankind.
The author herself says that this book is primarily a novel, which it is, and it is not, therefore in any way ‘preachy’ but the research has clearly been very well done.
This is the first work I have read by Ann Swinfen and it has inspired me to seek out her other novels. I enjoyed The Testament of Mariam immensely and would certainly recommend it to other readers.”
Don’t miss this amazing book–narrative writing at its best!
“The Testament of Mariam by Ann Swinfen is a brilliantly imagined first person account of New Testament events in which the narrator offers a uniquely loving eye-witness view of familiar biblical events as they unfold. Mariam’s “testament” comes from the perspective of unwavering love forged in childhood – a love of such depth and power in the telling that her words and thoughts are not only moving but very credible.
Carefully researched details of time, place, culture, and daily life are fascinating, and provide a strong sense of immediacy, of living in the moment, adding greatly to the reader’s understanding of happenings, as love, loyalty and friendship are tested to their very limits.
This is narrative writing at its best – captivating from the first sentence. The words flow with grace, beauty, and exquisite imagery as Mariam’s thoughts and emotions from childhood to old age are tenderly and convincingly wrought in prose that is often poetic and crafted to perfection. Mariam’s story draws the reader to her with its momentum towards fresh and plausible explanations, shedding light on a centuries-old puzzle.”
A Fascinating New Book
“She writes with passion and the book, her fourth, is shot through with brilliant description and scholarship…[it] is a timely reminder of the harsh realities, and the daily humiliations, of the Roman occupation of First Century Israel. You can almost smell the dust and blood.”
—Peter Rhodes, Express and Star, December 10, 2009
Historical writing at its best
“Telling a story that’s already familiar to most of us–in this case the life of Jesus–is a challenge for any writer. However, Ann Swinfen offers a different level of engagement with events by viewing them through the eyes of Mariam, a fictional sister of Jesus. The world Mariam inhabits is evoked in utterly convincing detail which can only be the result of a prodigious amount of research though it’s woven so skilfully into the narrative that that thought never consciously occurs. You simply can’t believe that the writer hasn’t been there and done that!”
The Testament of Mariam
“It is a lovingly crafted story of Mariam, the sister of Christ, and her witness to his life. It opens up a wealth of beautifully described family encounters, then, occasionally, without warning the pace slows to allow a meditative, almost poetic reflection on what has taken place. Those moments send shivers down my spine… It is a book that should grace the shelves of many a home where good reading is valued.”