No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, May 26, 2007

#20: The Testament of Gideon Mack -- James Robertson

This is the story of a modern-day Scottish minister who encounters the Devil. Probably.

It's a rather slow book. We're told what has happened right at the beginning, in the framing narrative and the first few pages of Gideon Mack's own Testament. But it's more than two hundred pages before the significant event finally occurs.

In the space of those two hundred-odd pages, we've learnt a lot about Gideon. The first half of the book is a memoir, covering his early life as a 'son of the manse' with a repressive, emotionally unavailable father and a weak mother; his escape to university and the changes that he experiences there; his marriage, his taking orders, his charitable works (he runs marathons to raise money for good causes) and the emptiness of his faith.

Then things start to change again. There's an ancient standing stone in the wood, where none stood before; a dear friend is dying, and another is committing adultery; and Gideon begins to question every unthinking restriction that he's used to prop up his life.

Then he falls into a gorge and meets someone who saves his life -- and simultaneously dooms him.

I do like Scotland. I like the miserable weather. I like the miserable people, the fatalism, the negativity, the violence that's always just below the surface. And I like the way you deal with religion. One century you're up to your lugs in it, the next you're trading the whole apparatus in for Sunday superstores.

Hard to say whether Gideon Mack is utterly mad, or terrifyingly sane. Harder still to say what it is he wants from his new friend.

There are passages which feel a little self-indulgent (Gideon discussing with a friend the rise of celebrity ghost-writing; his patronising observations concerning his fellow ministers; a gleefully obscure passage purporting to be an excerpt from a 19th-century work on folklore, apostrophes all over the place as if someone's slammed the book shut on a plague of corn lice) but the prose is smooth, wryly witty, with a distinctly Scots flavour.

Slow, but intriguing. Reminds me of Lolly Willowes (Sylvia Townsend Warner) except without the certainty.

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