In James Robertson’s latest novel, or novel within a novel, the protagonist, Gideon Mack, is a Church of Scotland Minister in the north-east town of Monimaskit, who has been found dead on a mountain, apparently by his own hand. The book begins as a journalist, Harry Caithness, takes a manscript he has come across, written by the dead man, to a publisher friend. Mack’s death immediately followed a short period where the Minister had gone missing for three days, having fallen from a cliff-face into a turbulent river. On his return, hailed by some as a miracle, Gideon Mack claims to have met the Devil in an underground cave. The end of his life sees the Reverend discredited as a lunatic, and castigated by the Kirk for his increasingly eccentric behaviour.
Gideon Mack’s narrated manuscript constiutes the body of this novel. It’s bookended between the prologue, Harry Caithness’s conversations with Edinburgh publisher Patrick Walker, and an epilogue which sees Walker and Caithness reflecting on Mack’s testament. More pertinently, this section also contains the journalist’s questions to the townsfolk of Monimaskit, and their often revealing responses.
The story unfolds of a bright, concientious young man, yet one to whom duplicity comes easily. Thus we’re already in classically fertile territory for literary Scots; that of duality, with James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jeykll and Mr Hyde instantly coming to mind.
Though a dutiful son of the Manse, Gideon Mack has never believed in God. Nonetheless, as a line of least resistence, he follows his domineering father’s footsteps into a Church of Scotland ministry.
Despite a secretly held belief in the rational and observable, Mack has always felt the presence of somebody watching him, perhaps even acting on him, as physically manifest by occassional spasms in one solitary, twitching arm. In his life’s key conflicts the presence of this force looms large; his father smitten by a stroke as he psychotically assaults the young Mack for the crime of watching televsion on the Sabbath; Gideon’s facing down of a school bully, the tragic death of his wife, Jenny, in a road traffic accident, and the morally dubious seduction of Elsie, married to his best friend.
Misgivings about God aside, Mack tries to be a decent pastor to his flock in Monimaskit, and a good husband to the tragic Jenny. He is more successful in the former than the latter; as he raises thousands of pounds for charities with his marathon running, Jenny is neglected and passion takes flight from the marriage. They are attempting to patch things up when she meets her untimely demise.
Things move onto another level when, while running in the woods, the Reverend Mack comes across an eight-foot stone standing in a clearing where it never stood before. It seems however, for a variety of reasons, that he is destined to be the sole witness to this phenomenon.
Later, when he is attempting to rescue a friend’s dog, Mack falls into a local gorge, known as the Black Jaws, which has claimed many lives in the past. Instead of perishing down there, this is where he meets the Devil, who, rather than the absent God, is revealed to be this observing presence in his life. Mack and the Devil find that they get on well, both spiritually, and indeed physically.
However, simply recounting the narrative of The Testament of Gideon Mack in this manner does the novel scant justice. In the hands of great writers the unlikliest of stories are generally the most rewarding. What James Robertson produces here is a parable on organised religion, the supernatural (surely one of the necessary components of true religious belief) and mental illness, and the opague but evident relationship between them.
The storytelling skills needed to undertake this balance of the recounting of Mack’s repressed Calvinist childhood and his relatively liberated university days in Edinburgh, and his subsequent descent into either madness and/or the clutches of evil, supernatural forces are considerable. If there’s one factor that distinguishes succesful literary fiction from the best genre fiction of, say, horror or crime, its this unrelenting focus on character and place. Robertson pulls it off with aplomb, building up both the tension and the increasingly sinister elements in the tale without compromising either the humanity of Gideon Mack, or the rich evocation of Monimaskit, its history and its inhabitants. The result is a novel which is very hard to leave alone, and one that forces you to think about its ramifications inbetween sittings, and for a long while afterwards. The book thus becomes very much like the Stone in it’s protagonist’s conciousness, just waiting for you to go back to it.
The epilogue, where journalist Harry Caithness goes to Monimaskit and talks to the other key players in the drama regarding the disgraced and departed Minister, and most instructively to the sympathetic Elsie, manages to be unambiguous yet still satisfactorily inconclusive. Even Gideon Mack’s crucial lies wrong-foot us; they are perhaps not the ones we believed them to be, and they give us further food for thought.
The Testament of Gideon Mack deals with some of life’s big themes; mental illness, death, (im)mortality and way history and culture can potentially decieve as well as illuminate. In the age of obsession with cheap Z-list ‘fame’, reality TV and disposable pop ‘icons’, this overwhelmingly compassionate and thought-provoking book posits stark questions about the anxious way we steadfastly avoid such grandiose topics.
His last two novels, The Fanatic and Joseph Knight, have established James Robertson as one of the foremost Scottish (and British) writers. The Testament of Gideon Mack easily cements this position, leaving one hungry for more of his work. In the meantime, this cunning novel, destined to be open to several interpretations, demands another read.
Originally featured in the Guardian.