The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson

A Scottish minister, Gideon Mack, apparently has some kind of breakdown and behaves outrageously in his church before disappearing and then turning up dead on top of a mountain. But before he vanished, he left behind a manuscript which told the story of what happened to him, and this finds its way into a the hands of a publisher, Patrick Walker,who is intrigued. The novel consists of the manuscript, bracketed by commentary by Walker, explaining how he came by it, and what he did to try and verify its contents.

The manuscript begins with an account of how Gideon came across a peculiar standing stone while he was out running: one that had not previously been there but that gave no signs of having been only recently erected. Then Gideon goes back in time to describe his childhood and youth, giving the story of his life up until the time when he first encountered the stone.

From then the story gets more fantastical, as he has an accident which sees him fall into a river that sweeps him into an underground cave. Trapped underground for three days, he meets and befriends the devil, who eventually helps him to escape, into a world which had given him up for dead. Gideon becomes convinced that he did not dream the encounter, and becomes obsessed with meeting the devil again, which leads to his behaving (in the eyes of his congregation) very strangely indeed...

In the prologue, Walker says that when he first got hold of the MS, he read for twenty minutes before telling his assistant to hold all his calls, while he spent the rest of the day reading it. This, together with the background that has up until that point been described, does make it sound quite intriguing. But I think there is a bit of over-egging going on here by Robertson - it took quite a bit more than twenty minutes before I got wrapped up in the story.

Gideon's early (and maybe later) life was lived under the influence of his father - a fire and brimstone preacher who seemed to dominate everyone he met. Some of his speeches were quite powerful, and it would have been nice to have had a bit more of them. There was a section which I thought was good where he described the problems of Americanisation which is too long to quote in full: "This stupidity and this sentimentalism derive from a document which says that humans have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness...They don't. The chief end of mankind is to glorify God." Such confident and forceful faith contrasts starkly with Gideon's belief system: he becomes a minister because he thinks it's the best way of doing good for people, but frankly admits (to himself and his wife) that he does not believe in God at all.

As Gideon experiences personal difficulties, the story starts to feel a bit like one of the Susan Howatch Starbridge books: a preacher struggling with his conscience etc. and in the same way it is quite gripping. But I confess I wasn't sure what to make of the encounter with the devil that so affects Gideon: it's not clear from his description exactly what it was that was so powerful about the man he met.

The obvious conclusion we're encouraged to draw is that Gideon has suffered some kind of mental breakdown, or hallucination, and that, despite his repeated assurances, he is not in his right mind. Later in the book, various people approach him, claiming themselves to have met with the devil, but he says of them "They were, without exception, mentally disturbed, religiously deluded, or wilfully deceitful... the saddest thing was that most of them did not know it". Gideon does not appear to consider that he might be described in the same way, although in other respects his mind does seem quite clear.

And despite Gideon's frequent reassurances that his testament completely true, it does later turn out that he has in at least one respect been somewhat misleading, if not downright mendacious, in what he wrote. So the reliability of the manuscript is called into question.

What seemed a bit more clumsy was the way that the book's epilogue tried to confuse things a bit more by revealing that there was some evidence which appeared to confirm at least some aspects of Gideon's strange tale. We're obviously meant to be left wondering...

An interesting book, and quite readable, but I don't think it was as convincing as it could have been.

Completed : 24-Jun-2007

[nickoh] [2007 books] [books homepage]