the testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

Penguin, 2006, 386 p

Gideon Mack

From the first sentence of the framing device – a consideration by a publisher of a submission from a journalist – I felt on familiar territory; Scots Gothic. Echoes of Hogg’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner – explicitly referred to in the main text – Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Angus McAllister’s Canongate Strangler abounded.

Yet this was something of a tease. The actual testament of the main narrator, Gideon Mack, a Church of Scotland minister, is a more or less straightforward contemporary tale of the unfolding of his life from childhood through adolescence, university and marriage with only the merest infiltration of weird when, out on a run, he encounters a standing stone that previously had not been there. Not till well into the book’s 386 pages do we encounter any darker mysteries.

Early on there is one glorious Scottish joke when Mack’s rigidly Presbyterian father allows television into the house in the mid 1960s in order to watch the news and football (but emphatically not any trashy American shows such as Gideon’s school friends enjoy) yet still treats it with suspicion, “and glowered at it in the parlour – as if it were only a matter of time before it did something outrageously offensive.” Which, of course, in 1966 it did.

At the book’s crux – the turning point of the story is actually revealed by the fictional publisher in the prologue part of the frame so this is not a spoiler- Mack falls into a gorge called the Black Jaws while trying to save a dog and disappears for three days during which time he later claims to have met the Devil.

Taken on its own, Mack’s testament, while an enjoyable account of his crabbed childhood, his unsatisfactory adult life and the compromises with his lack of faith which are implicit in his choice of profession, is not really Gothic enough to carry the central conceit. The framing prologue and epilogue do something towards redeeming this, but do not do so entirely.

Perhaps Robertson meant to contrast modern normality with the sudden incursion of the old certainties – a C of S minister who had talked with the Devil would have had no quibblers in earlier centuries – and to emphasise how the past lingers and lies in wait to trap us. However, the encounter with the Devil (if it was he) is almost matter of fact – with only two insertions of strangeness, one when Gideon hirples to a sort of manhole cover above what could be Hell but could be just as easily be magma and the other when the Devil heals Gideon’s damaged thigh by the laying in of hands. (Yes; not laying on.) These passages feel divorced from the remainder and do not sit well with the main thrust of Mack’s narrative even though he is supposed to be relating it all as a result of his experience. Though having read the prologue we know it is coming, in the testament the meeting with Satan is not really effectively foreshadowed, despite some retellings of an old myth about what may lie beneath the Black Jaws.

There are occasional footnotes where the publisher comments on various statements in Mack’s narrative. Some might find this irritating but I didn’t mind.

The epilogue signals that Mack’s testimony is unreliable. Do we really need this spelled out? He does claim to have met the Devil after all. (Speaking of spelling, I would like to know why, in a book by a Scotsman, from a British publisher, is “mediaeval” rendered in the American way?) The final paragraph may have been one twist too many, however.

In the end we can make up our own minds as to whether or not Mack was deranged or suggestible, or if he really did meet the Devil lurking somewhere below a Scottish gorge.

In sum the testament of Gideon Mack is not as impressive an achievement as Robertson’s The Fanatic but for anyone interested in contemporary Scottish fiction, or indeed Scots Gothic, it’s a worthy addition to the canon. And it is eminently readable. It did keep me turning the pages late at night.

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