Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson




An intriguing book. This is the first book I've read for the From the Stacks Challenge.

I finished reading The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson at the end of November and have now got round to writing about it. I started it with great enthusiasm and found it a compelling book to read. It is a psychological mystery concerning the nature of belief, faith, and truth. It starts with an account of the disappearance and death of Gideon Mack and the discovery of a manuscript written by him shortly before he was last seen. It is clear right from the start that there is mystery and uncertainty surrounding his disappearance, death and the discovery of his body. The book centres on the manuscript with an epilogue containing “notes” written by a journalist investigating the mystery, considering whether the manuscript was “anything other than the ramblings of a mind terminally damaged by a cheerless upbringing, an unfulfilled marriage, unrequited love, religious confusion and the stress and injury of a near-fatal accident?”

Gideon Mack was a minister in the Scottish Church, even though he did not believe in the existence of God. He simply didn’t discuss religion and discovered that “it was possible to be a Christian without involving Christ very much”. He concentrated on works rather than on faith and threw himself into raising money for charity. One of his fundraising events was running in the London marathon and he found that running made him “immune to the world and its problems.” Whilst out running in the woods he came across a standing stone that he was sure had not been there before. It is this stone that drew him further into the mysterious events that led to his disappearance. He took photographs of the stone, but they failed to come out. It is not clear whether the stone was actually there or not, any more than it is not clear what actually did happen to Gideon Mack.

Be aware:there are possible spoilers ahead.

As well as being a faithless minister Gideon was married to a woman whom he did not love and he was in love with Elsie, his best friend’s wife. As I read the book I realised that it’s just not clear whether Gideon’s account is truthful and how much of it can be believed. Did he have an affair with Elsie or not? Did he see the standing stone, or was it just a figment of his imagination? Was he mad or deluded or what?

What is clear is that he fell into a ravine, trying to rescue a dog that fell into the Black Jaws and he was “churned and spun like a sock in a washing-machine, carried along by an immense, frothing, surging force.” He thought that he “couldn’t possibly have survived the fall” but even if he had “the river would have killed” him. He thought he must be dead. And it is at this point that he found he had been rescued by the Devil and spent three days with him before he eventually returned home. He claimed the Devil had healed his leg, broken from the fall, discussed the nature of belief and God with him and swapped his trainers for Gideon’s shoes. Are the trainers proof that the Devil does exist? When Gideon saw the trainers they triggered his memory – but is his memory reliable? What is real, what is imagined and what is illusion?

The question of whether Gideon believes in God and the Devil as a result of his experience is not answered directly, although in remembering his near-death experience Gideon thought “there really is something good on the other side. I don’t know what, but it’s not the end.”

The book kept my interest to the end. I wanted to know what happened to Gideon, why he became a minister when he didn’t believe in God, how he coped with living with the Devil when he had previously believed him to be a figment of his imagination, what was real, what was legend and are myths just metaphors. Like Surveillance this book is open ended. As Gideon said, “You either believe or you don’t.”

2 comments:

Cath said...

It's funny, this is one of those books I felt I really should like as it's similar in style to some of the long Victorian or Edwardian stories of the macabre. And while I was reading it I was fine. But when I'd finished I really couldn't make up my mind whether I liked the book or not. I think I felt it never quite reached its full potential. Whatever, it's nice to know that this kind of book is being written and published once more.

BooksPlease said...

I had much the same reaction, Cath, even though I wanted to know what happened somehow it left me with an odd feeling. It took me a while before I could write the post as I wondered what exactly I was going to say about it.