Book Review: “The Testament of Gideon Mack” by James Robertson
I read this book because it has wound up in the canon of Scottish Literature for schools
and I had never heard of it. This is because it was published in 2006 when I had three children under five and no brain for it. It was Sophie Kinsella or nothing back then.
So, “The Testament of Gideon Mack”…
Plot: An atheist Church of Scotland Minister, Gideon Mack, sees a standing stone that appears to have appeared out of nowhere. He commits adultery with his best friend’s wife after his own wife’s death. He goes for a walk with another friend whose dog needs rescued and in the course of rescuing it he falls down a ravine. He wakes up three days later in hospital and when he sees his shoes he remembers that they were given to him by the devil during a three-day spell in his underground lair. He recovers sufficiently to conduct a funeral for a parishioner based on the Mexican Day of the Dead and gets banned from preaching. He makes plans to rendezvous with the Devil and is found dead.
Structure: This is a text within a text. A freelance journalist is wondering what to do with it or make of it and presents it in that light. So, from the start we know that he is found dead and that people had thought he had gone mad. The bare bones of the narrative are no mystery from the outset. Gideon narrates most of it and we believe him as he writes, but in the epilogue, inconsistencies are found which concern various matters of fact – so he, with hindsight, was an unreliable narrator – making the reader sigh and think that they’ll have to probably read it again some day… but not making them terribly motivated to actually do that.
Character: Gideon Mack likes to think of himself as honest – but he isn’t. He would always have rather married his friend’s wife. He goes into the ministry fully aware of his own hypocrisy. He likes to run for a variety of reasons and it is this hobby that leads him to the standing stone that first unsettles him. He was brought up in a manse in a loveless family. I don’t know if I liked him or not. He was hard to root for. I think the only likeable character was his wife Jenny – as she was straightforward and honest – but she wasn’t fully developed.
Setting: The events described too place over a lifetime and charted the decline of the Church of Scotland and described changes in Scottish society over the last five or so decades. Real events globally were alluded to, anchoring the text in reality. Gideon’s parish is a seaside town, with places to run and a ravine to fall down.
Main ideas: The book is about faith and who believes what and why. Gideon starts off an atheist and ends up an agnostic with a firm belief in the Devil. But, he’s more than likely insane.
I think the writer wants to look at the role of religion in society. The event portrayed most positively was the funeral of an agnostic lady in the town. She did a kind of postmodern DIY funeral with global influences and a humanist thrust.
It was like the baby and the bathwater thing. She couldn’t believe in God for sure and so had withdrawn from religion – but to her religion was an important part of her culture and her personal history and her identity – in human terms, so she wanted to be a part of it in death. She threw the baby out with the bathwater, but wished she could have kept the bathwater, as it were.
Other themes… families, father/son relationship, love, honesty, insanity, truth and experience.
The Standing Stone – it is something unexplained and unproveable that Gideon absolutely believes in. It confronts him with its tangible reality, but he cannot record it by photography for anyone or bring anyone to see it. In the epilogue, Elsie claims to have seen it, but then she lapses into uncertainty. I think the standing stone symbolizes mystery – anything that can be believed in, but cannot be proved. Also the standing stone may represent pre-Christian religion – other faith, more ancient faith – faith that has been left behind, just like belief in fairies in the book described below. There is the link of the physical things of religion and the way that has interplay with human history and identity.
Three days with the Devil – there has to be a parallel “he descended into Hell” – and spends three days wrestling with the devil and discussing the nature of God and faith. Like Jonah in the whale or like Jesus in the tomb. Then, after being presumed dead, he has his ‘resurrection’ and wakes up in hospital. He gave his life, effectively while rescuing the dog.
A book about fairies – there is a book that was given to his father, written by a theologian about fairies, from the standpoint of faith. As a young man, Gideon asks to read it, but he is not allowed. Near the end of his life, the book turns up in his own study. Apparently it had been given to his father by the Devil. It was signed “GM” – for Gil Martin. This is a reference to the character symbolizing Satan in James Hogg’s novel “The Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner” – a novel which I have heard of… but hadn’t read. It has a similar idea and structure to this ‘testament’. So the book about fairies I think is meant to show the naivety of theism, ironically making intertextual reference to show the fictional reality of the Devil.
So…. What do I think of it?
Well, I felt under represented in it. Not a single straightforward theist amongst them. The one chap I sympathized with for a page or so turned out to be horrid and just as hypocritical as Gideon, if not moreso.
I think the novel suffered because it was so unlikely that Gideon would have become a minister, against the backdrop of his own upbringing – so it didn’t ring true.
I think the novel was effective in describing the changes in Scottish culture and by presenting a largely accurate portrait of Scotland’s (and maybe the world’s) increasing doubt and uncertainty about all things.
In the end, the book didn’t really do it for me. I wasn’t left wondering whether or not the stone was real or the interview with the Devil was real. He was clearly insane… and that explained everything. I’d rather not have had the option to think that. Although maybe that was Elsie sort of seeing the stone. Hmmm…
Interesting to read that there is a canon of Scottish literature for schools – that in itself bodes well, even if, judging from the above, you weren’t too taken by the book as such. In general, don’t you think there’s a tendency in our neck of the wood (Europe) to sort of snigger at people who state they have faith? I would say that at times not being an atheist is somewhat of a drawback – it’s as if professing faith = to being a superstitious fool with no grounding in reality. I’m sorry; I’m VERY grounded – and a theist. Contradiction? Not in my book! Liked the review, and I agree that there is a major flaw in Gideon ever becoming a minister. It sort of kills the rest …
🙂 Thanks for the comment.
Very odd book. Full of interest, but not altogether appealing.
What an odd minister. I’d be curious about how real the conversation with the devil actually was; odd that he turns agnostic yet has faith in the devil. I really like your review, I feel as if I got to read the important parts. 🙂
It reminded me of “Meet Joe Black”, if you’ve seen that?
The devil was quite like Joe Black.
If the devil looks like Brad Pitt, that can’t be so bad. lol I saw it and I liked it. Interesting.
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I’m commenting on this so late because I’ve just read the book myself! I remember a minister (one who did believe) once telling me “we have an unspoken agreement, the congregation and I. I don’t ask them what they believe and they don’t ask me.” I was repeatedly reminded of this while reading GM. I have to say I don’t find the idea of a doubter becoming a minister that surprising – a view shared (when she reflected on it) by GM’s fictional friend, the retired teacher, Catherine Craigie.
As for straightforward theists, Lorna Sprott was one such, I felt. She might be a bit of a twerp, but then -theist or otherwise- aren’t we all?
Thanks for the comment – it’s all a bit hazy – but I do remember distinctly not relating to the Sprott character. Although, granted, I was more represented in this novel than in Robertson’s other novel “And the Land Lay Still”. Of course, if I ever got around to writing my own novel, I could totally be represented to my heart’s content… so I can’t really complain…