Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Testament of Gideon Mack - James Robertson

“If the devil didn’t exist, would man have to invent him?”

Rarely is a cliché used with such dexterous panache as in James Robertson’s novel about a Minister who meets the devil and returns to tell his tale. From page one the reader is taken on a journey into the Scottish Highlands where the conjunction between myth, legend and reality produces a startlingly readable fable about the absence of certainty and the need for belief, whatever it is in.

When Gideon Mack, self confessed “charlatan, hypocrite [and] God’s grovelling apologist”, falls into a ravine trying to save a dog and is presumed dead, his community mourns the disappearance of its minister. But when he emerge unharmed three days later claiming he has met with the devil the newspapers have a field day and he is suspended from his position. Soon he goes missing again and is this time found dead on a remote hillside. This is his testament, his explanation of his life and the fantastical events which have befallen him: from staunch Calvinist upbringing through liberal student life, to uncertain, unfulfilled middle age. And then what? That is for you to decide.

I loved this novel, would go as far as to say it is the best new novel I have read in years. There is so much to interest the reader: the duplicity and perspicacity of each of the characters brings Monimaskit to life in a startlingly intricate small-town way; there is subtlety of plot which questions everything but discounts and answers nothing; major themes of modern life are discussed without simplifying or lecturing; and each and every one of the characters is ultimately extremely likeable. I felt present throughout, viewing events through Gideon Mack’s eyes without any idea whether my viewpoint was revelatory or insane. And maybe it is a bit of both.

There will be few novels written in the next decade which treat belief in the twenty-first century with the intricacy of James Robertson. He traverses the ravine between, on the one hand faith, holiness, reconciliation and religion and, on the other, self-doubt, rationality, selective mistrust and atheism. For there is good in each. He plunges straight into the raging torrent of the ravine, the very real Black Jaws of the story, and comes up with no answers, only more questions.

Such achievements in literature don’t come along every year and one must savour them when they do. Read this, you will not be disappointed.

8 out of 10

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