272pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Paul Sidey
Born in Ayr in 1965, Toni Davidson is a member of the so-called Scottish Renaissance which includes Irvine Welsh, James Kelman and Alan Warner. All four writers have demonstrated how literature still has the power to shock.
Davidson attracted international attention with his first novel, Scar Culture, which dealt with incest, child abuse and psychosexual healing. Then came a short story collection, and a second work of fiction, Silem Renk, which remains in a bottom drawer.
So, a new publisher, Freight Books, has taken up the cudgels for Toni Davidson. And he has produced a novel with powerful themes. In an unnamed country in South-East Asia, the repressive regime employs child soldiers to visit the most terrible atrocities on innocent and defenceless villagers. Davidson’s descriptions are harrowing in the extreme.
To provide a European context, we have a tortured young man, Tuvol, the son of a dying philanthropist, who seeks to end his own troubled life in the Alpine snow. Rescued by an NGO worker Dominique, he joins her in an attempt to help the displaced survivors of a recent massacre in the unidentified country we are supposed to assume is Myanmar. The cover image, with its superimposed child soldier, appears to indicate the temples and stupas of the great Burmese plain of Bagan...
Toni Davidson confesses he wrote this book ‘in huts, by the beach, in hotel lobbies, in train stations... It’s had a portable quality.’ Perhaps this accounts for the narrative’s fragmented feel. A character called Ruess gets to write Field Diary notes. There are no chapters. After 68 pages, a History student called Ree Paw is introduced to help further the discussion about ‘disinformation in a once proud academia’.
But, at the heart of the story, are two brothers, dumb since birth – Lynch and Leer. Their disability is also a kind of enchantment. Bullets cannot touch them. And, transported away from the scene of the brutal conflict, they achieve a kind of apotheosis in Switzerland as the snow falls before sunrise.
My Gun Was as Tall as Me does not work seamlessly as a novel, but its political and social concerns are communicated with unusual passion.