Book: The Life of Mary by Charlotte Mandel
Reviewer: Margaret Fechtmann
Charlotte Mandel’s The Life of Mary is a concisely written book that requires some time to absorb. A first, second or even a third reading may be needed to understand the parallels Mandel is drawing between the biblical Virgin Mary and a present day Mary.
Although I am blessed to have visited St. Peter’s Basilica twice in my lifetime, and have viewed Michelangelo’s ‘la Pieta’ during my visits, my reading of The Life of Mary had me curious enough to revisit a picture of this famed statue. Mandel references it often, almost as if it were the personification of the biblical character. She brings life to the statue so the parallelism of the two Mary’s flows seamlessly in this novella.
In ‘la Pieta,’ in a very emotional and expressive depiction of the lamentation of Christ, Mary cradles her son’s body. This has always been an awe-inspiring and ageless imagery. Just as he was cradled in birth, so was he in death. Throughout this novella, the reader is imprinted with this vivid scene.
Here, the contemporary Mary is ushered in. We find her reflecting on her own pending motherhood. Like most expectant mothers, Mary seeks answers, but here she seeks them from the Virgin (marble) Mary, “whose eyes have no iris”.
The tone and colour of Mandel’s expressions are exigent, yet deliberate. She captures the emotions of pregnancy with raw intensity. There are references to “shared blood and milk” and “their pulses beating under perfect skins”. And Mandel depicts that miracle and the separation at birth, as “the cage they have shared is now apart”. And behold, our contemporary Mary gives birth to her son Jon.
The statue of la Pieta is a staple throughout this oeuvre, with multiple recollections of its eyes – “eyes that have no iris”. It is also present in Mandel’s contemporary story line. Mary’s eyes are, in one part, depicted as “charcoal” and, in another passage her eyes are “dilated and radiant with a shining”. When young Jon captures a sunfish, its death is validated with the reference to “the clear eye lens is now filled with white pulp”. And Mary’s eyes are described as ‘opaque’ with his loss of the fish – a symbol of the iris-less eyes of the marble ‘Pieta.’
But there is more to be gleaned from this seemingly benign sunfish story. As a young boy, Jon did not know that the sunfish would die when removed from the water. That fish breathe in the water is counter-intuitive to a child. Jon painfully learns that death is more than not breathing.
Empathy may just describe the feelings for the contemporary Mary with her historical namesake. There is an emotional connectedness as she states that “the statue sweats under the hooded robe and the marble thighs ache from beneath the fallen male body” of the son that she holds. Now, the parallelisms take on a linear form and there is a confluence of both characters. The miracle of motherhood is timeless, transcending cultures and creeds.
This is a short but deeply emotional and impactful work that requires contemplation and self-reflection. Cryptic, one might argue, but written with a warmth and ease that moves the reader on multiple levels, long after the final page is turned.
Margaret Fechtmann contributes to Glenville Ashby’s Caribbean Literary Guild
Feedback: [email protected] or follow him on [email protected]
The Life of Mary: A poem-novella
Foreword by Sandra M. Gilbert
Saturday Press, Inc.
Montclair, New Jersey
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