The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson came highly recommended by my dad, and I was really keen to read it because of its intriguing cover and blurb about a minister who doesn’t believe in God but then meets the devil. I found it quite slow moving so it has taken me a while to get through it, but it’s one of those books that holds your interest and builds up a gradual picture of a character and the world he lives in (and these are my favourite kinds of books).
It starts off with a prologue written by the (fictional) publisher of the testament. He introduces the story by telling you at the outset where it is going – i.e. Minister Gideon Mack disappears from his small Scottish town and when he returns he claims that he was rescued by and has spent 3 days with the Devil. This makes him an outcast in his town, and he wrote this, his last testament, before he disappeared and was later found dead in the hills. None of these points are spoilers from me, by the way, as it’s all revealed in the prologue, and I think without this hint of where the book is going I might not have stuck with it as it is so slow moving.
The body of the book is the testament itself, as written by the main character Gideon Mack, and it’s a bit of a grey, depressing story about his life – an upbringing without any affection from his parents or any real excitement, a domineering minister father, his own repressed desires and passions for life, an unrequited love and a rather unhappy marriage, and most importantly a career as a minister even though he doesn’t believe in God. He’s obviously never really been happy and he doesn’t understand his place in the world.
All of this takes up about three quarters of the book, so there is quite a long wait until the most significant events take place – his accident, his death or disappearance (depending on your point of view), his meeting and time spent philosophising with the devil, and then everything that happens when he comes back. As I said, without the intriguing blurb and revealing prologue, it would be easy to give up before this point arrives.
Interestingly the book ends with an epilogue, where a journalist interviews many of the characters from Gideon’s story, and where quite a few inconsistencies arise. I suppose this is to make you consider whether you believe what you’ve read in the testament or if you decide he’s probably mad.
It’s a very thought provoking book actually, and I suppose it was mostly about beliefs – why we believe what we do; what is real and what is not; whether we just believe what we want to believe. I also liked the that it explores about what roles religion plays in people’s lives – sometimes it’s not about God at all, but about traditions and family or about doing positive things for society such as charity work.
I enjoyed reading the book but it does leave a lot of unanswered questions, which is quite unsatisfying. It would be a really good one for a book group to discuss actually, as I felt that I wanted to talk to someone about it to see what they thought had happened.