Over the months I’ve written about some difficult and disturbing books. Duncan McLean’s ‘Bunker Man’ immediately springs to mind, but perhaps Toni Davidson’s 1999 debut novel ‘Scar Culture’ unsettles more than any other Scottish novel I have read. It’s never as salacious as McLean’s novel often becomes, but like ‘Bunker Man’ it deals with abuse; physical, sexual and psychological, but does so in a manner which is far more subtle, artful and even handed and as such it stays with you much longer. I hadn’t read ‘Scar Culture’ for over 10 years, and it’ll be that time before I read it again, but that’s not because it’s a bad novel, far from it. It’s an astonishingly accomplished novel, but it is not an easy read. This is obviously someone who knows of which he writes, and that is perhaps the most disturbing thing of all.
Davidson doesn’t make it easy for the reader, and there is a reason for this. If he was too obvious in his prose the temptation to turn away may prove overwhelming. What we get is a story of familial abuse told in flashbacks, a series of snapshots, interview tapes, appendix and from multiple points of view which questions the reliability of the narrative voice, and it takes a lot of work on the readers part to decipher just who is who before they can understand what is going on. Although the subject matter of the novel includes incest, child abuse and the psychosexual, ‘Scar Culture’ isn’t a sensationalist novel, and is all the more powerful for it. The honesty and vigour with which Davidson writes means that it cannot simply be dismissed as a deliberate attempt to shock or offend. Rather this is serious and important writing that doesn’t flinch from pointing out unpleasant truths when others would look away.
The author never takes the easy option, and the technique of having the novel unfold as an investigation is crucial as it seems dispassionate, making what we read all the more powerful. There is no righteous anger or fury on the writer’s part, he leaves that to the reader. Having the protagonists have alternative names such as Click, Fright, Panic and Exit asks more questions than it answers. This is a book where you have to pay attention or you will be lost. Often you will find yourself returning to an earlier page as you realise that what you originally thought was mistaken, at least that’s how it now seems.
The biggest questions asked by Davidson are about sex, family and psychotherapy. The latter is challenged furiously as the whole novel asks readers to consider if this supposed treatment is perhaps as invasive and damaging as that which it seeks to cure. The abused children are placed in ever more danger as they are used like lab rats; abused and battered once more. The desire for their therapy to succeed blinds the therapists from asking what is best for the children. Results are all that matter, but when they are the people who set the parameters then just what constitutes a result takes little notice of those who are being tested. Once more the novel becomes about the desires of the adults rather than the children, and those who are charged with protecting them hurt them over and over again.
One of the pleasures of writing this column is coming up with the often tangential links between the books and the musical interludes. This month is no exception because, after dismissing a terrible thrash metal band called Scar Culture, I remembered a favourite from my youth. This is Edinburgh’s late and lamented Scars with ‘All About You’, presented by the legend who is Annie Nightingale:
‘Scar Culture’ came at the death throes of the 1990s, a decade that in hindsight was one where Scotland produced new and vital voices in literature. Particularly prominent was the rise of the Rebel Inc group. Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner are the names who went on to the greatest success, but there was also many other great writers, such as Gordon Legge, the aforementioned Duncan McLean and Laura Hird. It was appropriate that Rebel Inc published ‘Scar Culture’, but in a way it is their great lost novel. Davidson had written an insightful and serious investigation of sexuality, psychology and family that deserves to be read as widely as possible. It should be recognised as a major work. I mentioned at the top that I hadn’t read it in 10 years, and likely wouldn’t again for the same time, but I’ll be reminding everyone I know of its existence, and urging them to read it. Starting with you.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: John Burnside won the T.S Eliot Award for poetry last year for the collection ‘Black Cat Bone’, and reading his fiction it is easy to understand why. There are few writers who have his way with a sentence, and he is now one of the very best writers around. In 2007 he had his gothic novel ‘The Devil’s Footprints’ published which showcased a writer on the verge of greatness.
Many have compared ‘The Devil’s Footprints’ to James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, but it reminds me more of Robert Louis Stevenson at his most macabre. It is story telling at its very best, full of plot twists and surprises, and all done in the most exquisite manner imaginable.
- John Burnside The Devil’s Footprints (Mar)
- Stuart David Nalda Said (Apr)
- Zoe Strachan Spin Cycle (May)
- Ewan Morrison Swung (Jun)
- Martin Millar Lux the Poet (Jul)