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(Book Review): The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

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“For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack’s testament – a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history, and, quite probably, madness – recounts one man’s emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.”

I love this book cover

I love this book cover

I thought, given the events of the book, it’d be appropriate to review The Testament of Gideon Mack with The Devil. He has a deep, drawling voice and a bored tone, if you’re wondering.

Me: Something I didn’t realise going in was that this book spans Gideon’s entire life, from his childhood to his death. His father was a minister too, and so we see the effects Gideon’s repressed Calvinist upbringing has on him later in life.

The Devil: Because blaming Scotland’s problems on Calvinism is sooo original. We’ve never seen THAT done before.

Me: Somehow I doubt YOU are one of Calvin’s great defenders. You just like being the contrarian. In any case, it’s not solely an indictment of Calvinism. Gideon spends much of his ministerial career raising money for various charities. Helping the poor is one of Calvinism’s great legacies.

The Devil: Except that even in this he can’t bring himself to care or be happy about the people he is helping. It’s just a challenge; can he top himself this time?

Me: I’m getting the sense you didn’t like the book much?

The Devil: It’s unbearably dull. At least until my own little cameo, and that doesn’t happen until I’ve suffered through 270 pages of his mundane life.

Me: I personally found the section where Gideon meets the Devil to be the least interesting.

The Devil: You what?

Me: I guess I found his everyday life more interesting than you did. Things like the in-fighting between Church factions and his preference for the company of eccentrics and atheists were the most enjoyable parts of the book. No, it’s not a book I devoured. I didn’t read it more quickly as the action picked up. As a reader, I saw everything with the same sort of detachment as Gideon. It wasn’t an exciting read per se, but it wasn’t boring. It had an easy pleasance to it.

The Devil: I’ll admit that his childhood and relationship with his father was rather funny.

Me: Let me guess, you’re favourite part was that one anecdote about Gideon not being allowed to watch television on the Sabbath, missing the second-half of the Batman double-bill, and never knowing how Batman and Robin got out of Saturday’s cliff-hanger.

The Devil: Why, yes. How could you tell?

Me: Because you’re a sadist.

The Devil: Quite an important part of the job description.

Me: Anyway. Coming from an island, I thought Robertson really nailed the feeling and dynamics of living in a small town. And his description of the gorge known locally as the ‘Black Jaws’ leaves a vivid image. But my biggest takeaway from the novel was that despite my atheism a career as a Church of Scotland minister doesn’t sound half-bad; talking about whatever you want at sermons, doing a wee bit of charity work, getting set up in a cushy manse somewhere. I could do a lot worse.

The Devil: Then you missed the whole point of the novel. Gideon’s lies devour him and those around him.

Me: I thought that was your doing?

The Devil: I can’t take all the credit. Gideon had dug a hole for himself long before I came along.  Besides, who’s to say I was even real?

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