Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 156.
- Review Date: 2007-01-22
- Reviewer: Staff
Robertson offers in his absorbing American debut (two novels have been published in the U.K.) the cleverly framed autobiography of a Scottish minister who confronts the devil. A brief foreword claims the book is an autobiography penned by Gideon Mack, a Church of Scotland minister who, after allegedly encountering the devil, becomes a pariah and madman before disappearing. Raised by a harsh minister father, Gideon abandons faith at an early age, but later discovers it's possible to "be a Christian without involving Christ very much" and secures the pulpit at a small coastal church where he proves to be a gifted preacher. After his wife dies in a traffic accident, Gideon consummates a long-held obsession with old friend Elsie, whose husband, John, is also a longtime friend. A conflicted Gideon, while walking with another minister, falls into a gorge and is presumed dead. But he appears downstream, only slightly injured, three days later. His survival is miraculous, but his account of what happened is scandalous: he was saved by the devil. Gideon's struggle to find meaning in his experience leads to his undoing. Gideon's sly unreliability is cloaked by Robertson's mastery of language and command of the elements of fiction; the combination is addictive and captivating. (Apr.)
A devil of a story
"The modern Churchman," in all his spiritual misery, has been a happy staple of British literature for generations. Especially to the great comic novelists (Fielding, Trollope, Waugh), the clergyman plagued with doubtsor worse, ideasabout his Christian faith epitomizes the hypocrisy of British society and the uneasy mix of the old and new.
In our own day, unprecedented reservoirs of godless despair are available to a thoughtful man of the cloth such as Gideon Mack, the hapless hero of award-winning Scottish author James Robertson's new novel. "Hypocrite" is both too weak and too harsh a word for Gideon, who undertakes the ministry without a shred of belief in the gospels, but rather out of a genuine desire to help his fellow human beings.
The son of a dour and brimstony minister, Gideon finds himself both repulsed by, and irrevocably drawn to, the "kirk" (Scottish for "church") of his childhood. He does not look for miracles, nor does he hold out any hope for answers to theological questions. That is why, when a string of miracles actually befalls him with sudden and shocking force, he is completely undone.
The inexplicable overnight appearance of a huge, ancient standing stone in the woods near his town is merely a warm-up to the climactic event: Gideon tumbles over a cliff into a river chasm and is pulled out of the water by none other than the devil himself.
For three days, Gideon lives in a cave with Satan, nursed by him back to health and caught by him in a torrent of largely inscrutable conversation. The patience with which The Testament of Gideon Mack finally arrives at this supernatural interludetogether with its delightful, vindictively Scottish characterization of the devil as a bored, naughty, beautiful, overgrown English schoolboydistinguishes the story as one of the finest instances of diabolical literature in the genre's long and venerable history.
Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.