Part romance, part thriller, part theological speculation, The Return of the Divine Mary is a wonderfully eccentric, enchanting read. Traces of William Blake mingle with undertones of Bulgakov, Eco and Kafka to create a fast-paced, unpredictable drama constructed on an intriguing premise: ‘What would the Virgin Mary be like as a young woman in modern society, and how would her contemporaries receive her?’
The story follows Michael von Blomsterfeld, inventor, acrobat, rebel, romantic and grandson to the great theologian, Professor Johannes von Blomsterfeld, author of the controversial theological disquisition ‘The Return of the Divine Mary’. After returning to his deceased grandfather’s castle following seven years on the road in search of fortune as a circus performer, Michael constructs the ultimate circus ‘machine’ – a contraption containing, in miniature, all of the circus’s greatest acts – and sets off to enchant the world with his ‘Circus of the Divine Order’.
Meanwhile, Mary, Christ’s University’s greatest scholar, is on the run. On the eve of defending her doctoral thesis, Mary finds that her dissertation, as well as all proof of her existence – down to the very print on her ID card – has disappeared, and the authorities suspect wrongdoing.
The meeting of these two eccentrics leads to an unlikely collaboration, (as Mary becomes first Michael’s assistant, and soon the star of his show), a passionate love affair, and finally a tragic adventure as the duo is pursued by an angry mob that wants to silence speculations that Mary might, in fact, be the reincarnation of the Holy Mother.
While the world of the novel is left open to interpretation – there are computers and cars in this world, but beyond that, the universe presented could just as well be pre-Christian, Medieval or even futuristic – the central question remains captivating. How would we receive the suggestion that a pure being, possibly the mother of God, was alive and operating within our midst? Disbelief seems to be the prevalent attitude, stretching to venomous indignation, tempered only by a minority core of passionate support.
Bjarnason invites us to re-explore a story so familiar to us that we have lost sight of its astonishing strangeness and beauty. In the character of Mary, he presents us with a beautiful, fascinating, demure and very human incarnation of holiness and drops her at the centre of vicious intrigue that ultimately leads to her obliteration.
Indeed, the final disappearance of Mary suggests an indictment of the restrictions of our own imaginations. Unable to contain the idea of holiness, or the possibility of divinity in the broadest sense, we devise devious, rational means for destroying that which may be our salvation. As such, The Return of the Divine Mary appears as a passionate plea for the primacy of the imagination and the need for belief – be it sacred or profane – as intellectual challenge, as spiritual growth, and above all as a vital humanising impulse.
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