The Biblical Mary is pious and pure, obediently accepting her son’s—and her own— given roles in a divine plan. In the hands of master storyteller Colm Tóibín, however, Mary is not a beatific figure and the Gospels are not empirical history; instead, Mary is critical, judging her son’s followers as overeager loudmouths, mere “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers.” She mocks them for believing in eternal life. She sees the “miracles” of the raising of Lazarus and the conversion of wine into water as base opportunism in a time of chaos and feverish hope. After her son’s crucifixion, when asked to narrate the events that will become the synoptic gospels, Mary is reticent and declares, “I can tell you now… It was not worth it.” Biblical retellings are almost as old as Christianity, but The Testament of Mary (Scribner, $19.99) infuses new urgency into a familiar story with its provocative portrait of the Madonna.
In Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23), her fourth collection, the U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey wrestles with her family’s history and her own biracial identity. “Elegy,” a poem dedicated to her (still living) father, caustically poses the rhetorical question: “What does it matter / if I tell you I learned to be?” “Help, 1968,” focuses on a Robert Frank photograph of a white child and its black nanny, which Tretheway uses to share a family story of how her own mother, an African-American woman, was frequently mistaken by strangers for Trethewey’s maid. “I think of the betrayals of flesh,” she writes. “Carrying me / each day—white in her arms—as if / she were a prop: a black backdrop, / the dark foil in this American story.” Through sharp descriptions of 17th- and 18th-century paintings, Trethewey traces the lexicography of bodies once labeled mulatto, quadroon, and mestizo, and examines the damaging social and psychological legacies of this racism. With her sweeping and intimate poetry, Trethewey beautifully illuminates how “so much is left / untold… / between what is said and not… / the way the past unwritten / eludes us.”
Marie and Wim are a childless Dutch couple living peacefully in their suburban home when World War II breaks out. Reluctantly, they accept Nico, a Jewish man in his mid-50s, into their home as a clandestine refugee. In lean, translucent prose, Hans Keilson explores the internal, quotidian world of Wim and Marie as they continue with life-as- usual under extraordinary circumstances. However, Keilson, who died earlier this summer at the age of 101, exerts himself as a master of the modern novel when he takes an average story of lives troubled and lost during the Holocaust and infuses it with dark humor and macabre irony. After Nico dies of natural causes while in hiding, the Dutch couple is left with a dilemma: how to dispose of the body? When circumstances force Marie and Wim to flee their own home, Comedy In A Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13) explodes into a subito piano.
(This book cannot be returned.)