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James Robertson: The Testament of Gideon Mack

This book was nominated for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and it really should have won. Here is a book where the author is completely in control of his medium, where there is a first-class plot, well-drawn characters and a range of important ideas being discussed, including faith, religion and its relevance today, the issues of good and evil (but not discussed in a simplistic manner), the often grey boundary between reality and myth/legend and the usual relationship issues. Robertson himself has pointed out that Scottish literature has become more relevant in recent years and this book very much proves the point.

The book uses a framing technique. Much of the novel is, as the title says, the testament of Gideon Mack. However, at the beginning and end of the novel, a (fictitious) publisher, who is to publish the book (and subsequently does), describes how the manuscript fell into his hands and why he thinks it worthy of publication and gives a summary of the main points and what happened after the end of the manuscript. It has been brought to his attention by a journalist whose work he has published and, at the end, this journalist goes to the village where Gideon Mack was the minister and interviews various people who knew him (his interviews meet with varying success).

Mack is a minister in the Church of Scotland. He grew up as the only child of a minister. His father was dour and strict, with only one weakness, a love of football. Gideon was encouraged to read only serious books and the only novels approved of were those by Sir Walter Scott. Young Gideon naturally rebelled and, when he went to university, read English, with a view to becoming a teacher. His conversion to being a minister is one of the key points of the book and, frankly, one of the least convincing but it does happen and he ends up in the village of Monimaskit, on the East coast of Scotland. We meet an assortment of characters there, from the strict Kirk elder to the atheist archaeologist as well as Gideon’s two friends from university, John and Elsie. We also meet his wife, Jenny, a good friend of Elsie, who dies in a car crash, leaving Gideon a childless widower.

The key event of the book, about which we learn early on (in the initial framing introduction) is that the town has a famous set of rapids with very high cliffs on either side of them. A local legend has it that the devil lives down there but it is clear that anybody or anything who fell into the rapids would die. Mack, while trying to rescue the dog of a fellow minister, falls in. He is assumed dead but turn up, alive, three days later. How and why? He claims, before his congregation at the funeral of the atheist archaeologist, that he survived because he was rescued by the devil. Naturally, enough, his congregation is sceptical, particularly when he claims to see the devil at the funeral. He soon disappears and his body is later found but several people see him, long after he has died. The testament he leaves behind, the bulk of the novel, explains what led him there and what happens with the devil.

Of course, in good twenty-first century style, Mack is an unreliable narrator. This we learn from the journalist’s investigations at the end though how unreliable he is, is not sure and some of the dubious events are confirmed by others. The book has been seen as a riposte to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robertson (in the form of Mack) makes an oblique reference to this. If you have not read this book, I would strongly recommend it. The similarities with Robertson’s book are clear. But Robertson’s book is clearly a book that stands in its own right and I can highly recommend it to anyone interested not just in contemporary Scottish literature but in the contemporary novel in general.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Hamish Hamilton