The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

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The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Aaron Irwin
Reviewed by Aaron Irwin
Summary: Gideon Mack's description of the events that lead him from his normal, everyday life to meeting the Devil and what happens afterwards. The story is slow to get to the point, but latter third gathers pace towards some interesting revelations.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141023359

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The beginning of the end of Gideon Mack's life starts when he notices a huge, ancient-looking standing stone in his local woods during one of his frequent cross country runs. He tells his friends about this stone, but they are slightly sceptical. Giant stones don't simply appear out of thin air! However, he's not dismissed out of hand. You see, Gideon Mack is not your run of the mill church minister.

For starters, he doesn't believe in God, so he's a faithless minister. He was in a loveless marriage that ended early (due to an accidental fatality) and he's even coveted thy neighbour's ass, quite literally. Oh, and he believes he was saved from certain death by none other than the Devil himself. Unsurprisingly, most of the world takes a dim view of any person that claims to have met the Devil, but to announce this to the public as well as admit to quite a few other sins is probably not the wisest thing a fallen minister could do.

As if it wasn't already weird enough that he had disappeared into an underground river and returned three days later, largely unhurt, the mystery surrounding Gideon Mack increased when he simply disappeared at the end of 2003. No-one knew what had happened to him until one day his notes were discovered in a guest house by the land lady and shortly afterwards, his remains were found on Ben Alder.

With the exception of a prologue and conclusion by the book's publisher and the odd annotated explanation, it is these 'discovered notes' that form the basis of the book and are claimed to be entirely Mack's own work.

I didn't really get into the story that quickly. I thought it took too long to get to the point where Gideon Mack meets the Devil, with too much focus on the early part of his life. I felt that there was not enough of what happened after their meeting, especially given the amount of references to this meeting on the cover of the book.

In fact I was nearly two-thirds of the way through the story before I started enjoying the book. At times the story does get quite ambiguous and I got confused. Did Gideon Mack really see the Devil? Is it simply a result of his ordeal of falling onto the underground river? Are there other reasons, from earlier in his life why he might have conjured up such an illusion? Were there other reasons why this all happened? Did Gideon Mack pick the stories from his life because they were important in what eventually happened or was it reminiscing for the sake of reminiscence?

I can't really say that the book enthralled me because it was frustrating getting through so much preamble, but to its credit, finished well with a few interesting ideas. I think it's a wasted opportunity, despite the obvious quality of the writing, because the aspect of the interaction between Gideon and the Devil and the subsequent events after his disappearance had plenty of potential to offer up an exciting tale. I'd read Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma which is not a million miles away in terms of concept and enjoyed that much more because the big event happens a lot sooner, giving time for the concept to be explored fully, something that Gideon Mack lacks.

The early part of Mack's life is told well, despite not holding much interest for me. With the exception of Gideon Mack and the feisty Catherine Craigie, none of the other characters really struck a chord. I did think that some of the them could have done with a little more flesh on their bones, too. People like Mack's best friends James and Elsie seemed rather two-dimensional for my tastes despite the close emotional bond between them. Reading through this part of Mack's life, I was reminded of Iain Banks' The Crow Road, not in terms of characters but as a general vibe that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

The Devil, who turns out to be far from the stereotypical monster that you might expect, provides a lot to chew over. It's such a shame that his role is very much of a bit part player, albeit an important one and I thought the book gained a lot of life from the point where the two characters meet until Mack's disappearance and the subsequent conclusion. The ending was more reminiscent of the conclusion of an M. Night Shyamalan film such as The Sixth Sense or Signs where little snippets of seemingly worthless information are tied together to suggest something really strange has happened. Unlike those movies, I didn't enjoy the journey to the payoff as much as I might have done, but the ending itself was something I did quite enjoy.

The Bookbag suggests that you might also enjoy Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush which is set in the same area.

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Buy The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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barker357 said:

Although it also took me a while to get into the book, once I did I couldn't put it down! I was also a bit disappointed that the devil didn't play a bigger part and was also disappointed by the ending as I feel it didn't answer enough questions for me. I was also a little confused by the last few paragraphs, I feel like I must be missing something!

Magda said:

"reminded of Iain Banks' The Crow Road, not in terms of characters but as a general vibe that I couldn't quite put my finger on"...erm, Scottishness, perhaps???

I have just read that and I have to say that the blurb does the book a big disservice, selling it as some kind of a cult novel. Which it ain't and because of it, it'll be read by many people who will, to large extent, miss the point, which is quite sad as it's a good novel, which would probably get a four-star rating from me.

Not a "cult book" by any means, but one addressing all kinds of concerns; about personal faith and organised religion, belief and convention, hypocrisy and living a lie and whether it mattered, being true to yourself (and what it actually means), fabrication and myth, death of God and the weariness of the devil, confronting yopur own immortality, faith and faithlessness; combined with a convincing cultural background of a small Scottish town of the East coast.