Book Review: ‘Gospel of Mary’ a quick, light-hearted read
November 24, 2017
Anyone looking for a light-hearted, quick read with an air of mystery and suspense should look no further than Philip Freeman's new novel, “The Gospel of Mary.” A compelling stand-alone novel in its own right, I was surprised to find that this is actually the third in a series of novels, all starring the same heroine, Sister Deirdre. I would also say that while the novel is marketed as a mystery, you will not find Agatha Christie’s magical touch for intrigue here, as it is much more of a light adventure with mystery dabbled in.
This story follows Deirdre across 6th century Ireland, through settings which still exist today (for those of you who like visiting literary destinations), as she and her fellow nun race against the clock, and their holy pursuers, to try to translate a previously sealed gospel claiming to be the words of the Virgin Mary. It begins at the monastery of Saint Brigid, that's ruins still stand in modern day Kildare, where an old friend of Deirdre stumbles out of the mist with a mysterious package, and a warning that "they are coming for it."
By breaking the seal of the package Deirdre unleashes the wrath of a church that would rather Mary's words stay buried, and risks her own life and the lives of everyone she comes in contact with in her quest to understand more of her church's history.
What I truly loved about this novel is that while the main characters are nuns, Ireland's druidic past is not skipped over. The 6th century was a time of religious transition for Ireland, and Freeman highlights this fact very well. Deirdre is a devout nun, but also a Druid bard, which is an important element of her character. The tribal, pagan, past of the Celtic kings is apparent, as is the rapid spread of new Christianity. Neither faith is portrayed as better or worse than the other, and the main villains of the story would be wretched people with or without their faith.
The most interesting parts of the story are, by far, the chapters in which Deirdre translates the gospel she is spiriting across the island. Freeman writes Mary's words as the words of a mother and a woman, and she is very much humanized. History and theology have long left Mary underrepresented, and I quite like reading what people think about the woman who is said to have birthed Jesus, and learning how the world translates her beyond what is written in the bible.
Overall, this was an easy read with some very interesting concepts that I wish I had more details on. I will be reading the previous two installments in the hope that some of those gaps will be filled. Otherwise, “The Gospel of Mary” is an excellent choice for anyone who wants a Dan Brown novel without the extra 200 pages, a quick read for a snowy afternoon, or anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
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Review by Jenna Meier-Bilbo, a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.