Toni Davidson’s debut novel ‘Scar Culture’ introduced readers to a writer not afraid to tackle the most controversial and often disturbing of topics. His latest novel, My Gun Was As Tall As Me, came out last year, and from the horrific first page it is a devastating reminder that Davidson is a serious writer.
The novel opens with a chilling exploration into the world of child soldiers in South East Asia before widening out to ask wider questions about how we value life, both our own and that of others, and the relationship between so-called developed and developing nations.
Davidson never shies away from depicting the full horror of which he writes, and some may find that too much to take at times. If this novel doesn’t evoke a visceral, emotional, response from you then I would despair. The anger felt is all the greater because it doesn’t come from the writer, he leaves the reader to make their own conclusions.
The story centres on silent twins from a village under attack by a teenage, and even pre-teen, army. (The shocking argument is that children have not yet developed a full sense of moral value, are more pliable, and more able to commit atrocity after atrocity). The two, named Lynch and Leer, are born into this chaos and manage to survive. Their life is contrasted with that of a young man named Tuvol, half the world away, not only geographically, who wants to end his own life in the Alps.
There is a distinct and jarring contrast here as to how hard the villagers fight to live and Tuvol, and we have to consider what the value of an individual life really is, and who gives it such. After he is saved Tuvol seeks to give his life meaning by travelling to Burma and as these two worlds collide questions are posed as to how International Human Rights and Development organisations provide aid, and if such intervention is really positive at all. Of course there are no easy answers, but it’s the asking of those questions that are important.
There is an honesty and integrity in Davidson’s prose which means he doesn’t push emotional buttons to trigger response. It is the vigour of his research, and his use of descriptive language rather than overly emotive language, which does that job. That is not to say that this is reportage. This is a poetic writer who manages to capture big themes in few sentences. Consider this description of the modern city as a place where you’ll find; ‘people staring at things in shop windows that they cannot afford while keeping their eyes away from a human rotting slowly in the gutter’. As I walked to and from work this month it has been hard to disagree.
The best novels are those which challenge us and take us out of our comfort zones. They shouldn’t be easy to read or to forget. With My Gun Was As Tall As Me Toni Davidson has written a book which focuses on individual tragic situations to make us ask what we are, could, and should be doing with our lives, and for others.
* A longer version of this review has appeared elsewhere, but it’s a secret…