The Testament of Gideon Mack is a novel by James Robertson that has deservedly found its way onto the Scottish Texts list for National 5. It is a novel that raises many issues about modern Scotland as it does about such other metaphysical issues such as Truth and the existence of the Devil!
The most important question for teachers is…is the novel suitable for teaching? Well, now that there are some good resources on the internet, not least myetutor’s resources, I think that it is an excellent text for 15 or 16 year olds. There are three provisos, however. The first one is that there is a scene with a quite graphic description of sex, for about a page or so. The sex is not romanticised; it is dealt with quite plainly, and this is what some may have a problem with. It’s not gratuitously graphic, but it is functionally descriptive. Be careful who you get to read this out! (Laughter will ensue from adolescents, doubtless!)
The second proviso is that there is swearing. Not the Irvine Welsh machine-gun expletive approach, no, the novel approaches swearing in the same way most adults do – a released expression of emotion that ejects as a swear word. Nothing offensive, yet still something to be aware of.
The final proviso regards religion. The novel deals with religion in a sensitive, informed and sometimes humorous manner. The appearance of the Devil is serious, thought-provoking and comic. Yet to a particularly religious person, for whom the Devil is as real as the sea, sky and earth, then it could be interpreted as taking things too lightly. We think that 99% of the population will not even think of this, nonetheless, a particularly religious person could feel put out; unjustifiably we feel, but it’s as well to be aware of these things.
What the novel has going for it far outweighs any areas that could cause reticence, in our opinion. It stands as a modern response to Hogg’s The Confessions and Memoirs of a Justified Sinner. The transformation of Scotland from Faith to Doubt is explored in this novel, along with the psychology of modern Scots. It is an insight into the history of the country and into the culture that the country has generated.
The language is sophisticated but not inaccessible, and a motivated National 5 class should be able to cope and be challenged at the same time. The length threatens to put some people off, but we would recommend not being daunted. The novel is rich enough that a lot of areas can be covered within its study, including creative writing and discursive essay writing. It is not a novel that will be laboured given the reduction in demands for National 5 compared to Intermediate 2 or Standard Grade. It is quite addictive once started and the novel provides plenty of questions and mystery to keep the reader involved.
For pupils of roundabout 15, it provides a way of starting to read adult literature and engage with important topics without being intimidated by something too dense. It also has the added bonus of being particularly relevant. The novel covers 1979, the year of the referendum in Scotland for home rule, and its description of those events and attitudes will have a particular ring in the year ’13-’14.