James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack is an object lesson in the pros and cons of cover design. The hardback came out just a few months ago and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but when it won a place on the Richard & Judy list for 2007, the paperback was rushed out a good eight months early, in mid-January. And the paperback cover is appealing and friendly:
It promises us a quirky, cheerful, amusing read; and it is completely misleading. In fact The Testament of Gideon Mack is very good indeed, but just not in the way we might expect. The structure is a traditional ‘true story’ one: the manuscript forming the body of the text has fallen into a publisher’s hands, and there is framing material at the start and end to bolster plausibility. It put me in mind of Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (and Gray is not a bad comparison for the book as a whole, either).
But where we are led to expect – from the prologue, the blurb and the cover – a strange tale of supernatural encounters between a godless Church of Scotland Minister and Auld Nick himself, we get almost nothing of the sort. Instead, Robertson gives us a more or less straight story of a man’s upbringing in the church. It seemed slow going, overwritten, frankly quite dull – until I managed to forget my expectations and follow along in the flow. Suddenly – at the scenes when Gideon Mack tells us of how his father introduced a TV set into their home – the whole thing began to come alive, and I started to enjoy it thoroughly. Mack’s discovery of sex, his battles with his family and parish, his time at university and investiture into the ministry, all provided a much richer – and more serious – experience than the jackass cover illustration which I had liked so much to begin with. (But if it had been given a more appropriate, sober cover, would I have bought it in the first place?)
The scenes with the Devil, and the controversy which follows, do come, but not until page 270, and the vast majority of the book is the mini-epic story of a life, quite soberly dealt and without much flourish or fancy. At times the contemporary references – Thatcher, Iraq, Shilpa Shetty – seem out of place, and I couldn’t help feeling that the style and form would be better suited to a historical setting (like Robertson’s earlier novels). Finally, the main body of the story – before the thirty page epilogue – takes flight right at the end, and produces a memorable and moving scene in a graveyard involving kites and tambourines, which seems like one of those rare set pieces that springs out at us fully formed, and shows that the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes.