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Review: The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

On Tuesday afternoon I checked my phone at work and the Head of the school where I am Chair of Governors at had sent me a message to say that OFSTED were coming in the next day to do a visit.

For those of you who don’t live in the UK, OFSTED is the school inspection body.  They come round every three years or so and write a report on the school.  In the old days, you used to get six weeks’ notice, but now they tell you the afternoon before, so that they can get a truer picture of the school in its everyday operation.

Part of the inspection involves a meeting with the Chair of Governors.  This took place on Thursday morning, which meant that all Tuesday and Wednesday evening were spent reading up on my files.  Normally when I try to do tasks in the evening, I get distracted with reading my blogs but for once there were no distractions at all.  I can honestly say I haven’t concentrated so hard for ages.  Not peeking at my blogs is a major thing for me.

I remained undistracted and very quiet in the blogosphere throughout Thursday evening, which was when I remembered I had booked into some other governor training, and Friday as well, when I was at a party until 3am.

At this party, I met my friend Jane and told her that I’d almost finished reading The Testament of Gideon Mack, which was part of the big pile of books she’d lent me a few weeks ago.

The Testament of Gideon Mack is the story of a Scottish minister who disappears in an accident and miraculously returns after three days.  On his return, he insists he was cared for by the Devil and the big question is whether he is telling the truth, or whether he is lying, or whether he is just mad.

Jane has also read The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by the Scottish novelist, essayist and poet James Hogg, on which Gideon Mack is based, which I think added an extra layer of interest to her reading of it – she said reading the two together was fascinating.

Not having read The Private Memoirs, Gideon Mack was less fascinating for me!  It began well, very eerily and creepily, and the description of Gideon’s childhood with his devout minister father was compelling.  However, the middle portion of the book contained rather too much thinking and talking and not enough action for my taste.

I think religious belief is quite a minority theme in modern fiction.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of a handful of examples.  One of them is Stephanie Potter’s husband Daniel in A S Byatt’s Still Life, who takes on a career as a clergyman in order to do good, rather than because he believes.  I am also reminded me of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.  I am interested in the fact that in both these latter books, the author sets up a premise that seems impossible and demands belief from a reader.  However, both these books ultimately come down firmly on one side or the other of belief or not.  Gideon Mack does not do this, which I found made it much the less memorable.  I think I demand definiteness and not ambiguity in order to get my kicks.

The actions of the characters reminded me once again of the way in which we can sleepwalk into making decisions with our lives, when we don’t question why we are doing things and why we have the values we have.  For years, I questioned how I did things.  When I was a youth worker, we were massively encouraged to be self-reflective of our practice.  But it is only recently that I have started to think of why I have adopted the values I have adopted.  Thinking about my values has changed them and I no longer feel the need to be doing things for other people all the time.  However, we can only give so much of ourselves, and I want to do as good a job at the things I do that I can.

My desire to be good in the conventional sense is much less strong than it was.  But I do question what goodness is.  I think there is another kind of goodness, which is making other people feel good by being confident and happy and positive, rather than the discomfort that people can feel if you are tense or awkward.  I quite like this sort of goodness and would like to have even more of it.

In the end, I think this is a zero sum situation, and the constant is my intention to be good, which I think I am pretty much stuck with.  I just hope I am less annoying in my latter guise.







  1. One of my favourite psychoanalysts (to read, this sounds like I might know him personally!) is D W Winnicott who came up with the idea of the ‘good enough’ mother. His view was that perfection was damaging for all concerned. A good enough mother knew she’d fail and make mistakes with and around her kids, but that this was in actual fact really good for them. They need to know that people aren’t perfect, that they mess up and fail and feel badly about it all, and they need to see that in action in order to learn how to get back from a bad situation. I can’t tell you how humane and wise I find this idea. So I’ve tried to take it over in the rest of life too: being a good girl involves making some mistakes and doing things wrong, just as good health involves getting ill sometimes. The book sounds intriguing – I’ve seen it around without ever knowing what it was about, so thank you for the review!

  2. Gideon Mack does sound like a fascinating read but from what you say about the middle bit I’m worried I might get bored. Also the fact that it seems to come down on the side of ambiguity would frustrate the heck out of me! I’m like you…I like answers!

    I hope the OFSTED meeting went well! Interesting that they only give you an afternoon’s warning now but far better to gain a realistic assessment, even if stressful for those involved!

    Denise, I am sorry that I’m only just getting over to you with this, I’ve not been on my laptop much since posting my awards post but I wanted you to know that I’ve nominated you for The Dragon’s Loyalty Award and here is the link:

    I just wanted to thank you so much for your support of my blog and I never take your visits for granted. Don’t worry if you don’t ‘do’ awards, just know that I’m thinking of you…have a great day and congratulations 🙂

    • I realised I don’t have time to do awards when I found I owed about three – the main thing I love about blogs is the chatting away to other people and I’d rather spend my time doing that.

      It’s so sweet to be appreciated though and congratulations on your award!

  3. I remember being vaguely disappointed by Gideon Mack when I read it. The only thing I remember from it is a discussion of lavatorial habits. (I know really hope I didn’t just imagine that)

  4. That inspection sounds horrible. No notice like that! And how much you were “into it” not to peek at blogs. Hope it went well. Yes, I have been wrestling lately with letting things go…..that some “bad” in the world does not need my “good.” And yes, just being good enough for myself (high standards there) probably does more good. than trying to please. I think we are on the same page. Glad you are back!!!!1

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