One of my favourite books of last year was James Hogg’s weird and wonderful 1824 classic The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The Testament of Gideon Mack is a contemporary novel but when I discovered that it was inspired by The Private Memoirs and Confessions I knew I would have to read it.
Gideon Mack is the name of a Church of Scotland minister who disappears from his home in the small Scottish town of Monimaskit never to be seen again. Following his disappearance, a manuscript is found and given to a publisher; this document, which was apparently written by Gideon Mack himself, is an account of his entire life, from his childhood to the moment he sets off to climb the mountain Ben Alder – a journey from which he never returns.
As Gideon’s last testament unfolds, we are given a detailed portrait of a flawed, complex but very human character – a man who, despite not believing in God, becomes a minister like his father; a married man who would rather be married to his best friend’s wife; a man who is never happier than when he is out running alone in the woods. But when he falls into a ravine called the Black Jaws, is swept away by the river and emerges several days later claiming to have met the Devil, it seems that Gideon has lost his mind. Or has he?
Books that are a little bit unusual and quirky always appeal to me and The Testament of Gideon Mack was certainly both of those things! I found it a fascinating and imaginative story, but in the end I was slightly disappointed as it was not quite what I’d hoped it would be. Apart from a storyline involving a standing stone that mysteriously appears in the woods, and the inclusion of an eerie Scottish folktale, there was little of the gothic atmosphere the blurb and quotes on the book cover had hinted at. Gideon’s encounter with the Devil, which I’d thought would form a significant part of the plot, doesn’t take place until near the end of the book (over 250 pages in) and when it finally happened it felt like an anticlimax.
This wasn’t the dark, supernatural story I was expecting, then – and definitely not as good as Hogg’s fantastic novel, despite sharing a few plot elements – but once I’d realised that, I was able to accept it for what it was. Gideon, as I’ve already mentioned, is an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching his story unfold. The chapters in which he describes his early life, growing up as the son of a strict church minister, were my favourites. I particularly loved his account of how a television first arrived in the manse and how he would always watch the first part of Batman on a Saturday but never knew how the story ended because his father had banned television on Sundays. And as a book lover myself, it was good to see the young Gideon discover the joys of reading as he worked through the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.
Although The Testament of Gideon Mack is a modern novel, published in 2006 and set in the very recent past (with contemporary references to things like the Gulf War and Scottish devolution) the writing style and the way it is structured make it feel more like a 19th century one. It’s a very similar structure to The Private Memoirs and Confessions: Gideon’s testament is presented as a long manuscript with editor’s footnotes, a publisher’s prologue describing how the document came into his possession, and an epilogue written by an investigative journalist. I couldn’t help thinking a more historical setting would have been better suited to the style of the novel – although I tend to think all novels would be better with historical settings, so other readers will probably disagree with me on that point!
So, did Gideon Mack really meet the Devil? Was he telling lies? Did he just imagine it all? And what happened when he arrived at Ben Alder? Those questions are never really answered but using the information given in Gideon’s own testament together with the statements of witnesses and people who knew him well, we are left to decide for ourselves.