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Colm Tóibín's Mary helps us understand the inexplicable

The Testament of Mary - review.

The Testament of Mary
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 112pp, £12.99

Colm Tóibín’s debut novel, The South (1990), was one of the first books I reviewed for a national newspaper. Set in Ireland and Spain in the 1930s, it is one of his finest works of fiction. The prose is spare and has a kind of stillness in it. He has since written about emigration to America in the 1950s, Argentina at the time of the junta, Henry James and sexuality. I have taken all these subjects in my stride. Now he has written about Mary, the mother of Jesus, with whose story I am, frankly, unfamiliar in all but the broadest detail.

Is this a disadvantage? Can we come at history or mythology cold? Thomas Cromwell was a minor A-level history topic until, in Hilary Mantel’s hands, he was turned into a literary superhero. But perhaps Mary is too well known? After all, her life is recorded in one of the two great originating books of the Judaeo- Christian tradition. The question for the wary reader approaching Tóibín’s novel is whether it is an atheist’s demolition job or an attempt to deepen our religious understanding of the birth, the death and the resurrection. Or is it something else still – a personal study of grief and the attempt by a mother to understand the events that have led to the brutal death of her now-celebrated son?

Mary is a bereaved widow, lonely and old. Joseph’s chair remains, but no one is allowed to sit in it. After the crucifixion, she is hunted by the authorities and is now under the protection of her son’s friends. Their role is to ensure that the story told of the crucifixion is the correct, emerging Christian one.

Mary is a doubter; she has seen Jesus preaching, “his voice all false and his tone all stilted”. Only when they are alone together does he seem “cleansed of whatever had been agitating him”. She sees the miracles performed by her son as a “crowd roaming the countryside like a swarm of locusts in need of want and affliction”. Tóibín describes the raising of Lazarus as a kind of zombie possession. If Lazarus was indeed alive again, then he had seen something that had “frightened him beyond belief”. Tóibín is preoccupied by silences and their enemies: the silence of death, the clamour of the preaching. “Death needs time and silence,” he writes. One senses Mary putting her hands around her ears to protect herself from the din and commotion of Roman Palestine and her son’s acolytes. She needs solitude in order to be able to think and feel and remember.

Tóibín depicts a row between Mary and Jesus in which she has to remind him angrily that she is his mother. He annoys her with his “high-flown talk and riddles” and frightens her by pronouncing himself the Son of God. Many mothers of children with mental illness might view their offspring as Mary does, remembering waking him in the morning and how his childhood was filled with happiness. The sheer masculinity of the grown man, and his pride, repel her.

Mary feels she is witnessing a mob hysteria growing up around her son. Soon she learns he is to be crucified and the novel proceeds with the horrifying detail of the execution. In a terrific description of the mob, Mary observes: “There was a dark vacancy in the faces of some, and they wanted this vacancy filled with cruelty, pain and with the sound of someone crying out.” The burial and Jesus’s rising on the third day seem to her to be a collective dream, not a real event. Myths are already growing up around him, and her own testimony is not believed. Perhaps she is not being so much protected by the friends of Jesus as guarded, to prevent her story from leaking out.

The final sentence in the book refers to “the gods of this place”. I don’t think she means the Holy Trinity but an older, more comforting paganism. Facing her own death, she moves towards silence and the “soothing, dwindling light”. There is something archetypal about her; she appears here not as a modern woman, but as a way for Tóibín to understand the infinite and the inexplicable. This is a flawless work, touching, moving and terrifying – even for an atheist Jew like me.

Linda Grant’s most recent novel is “We Had It So Good” (Virago, £7.99).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.