By Alex Wood
Nina de la Mer was born in East Kilbride. She studied modern languages at the University of Sussex in Brighton, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. She has also lived for short spells in London, Brussels, Paris and Hamburg. Earlier this month, she appeared at Waterstones in Edinburgh reading from her debut novel, 4 a.m., published by Myriad Editions.
4 a.m. spotlights the lives of two British soldiers serving at a British base near Hamburg in the 1990s. At one level, this is Trainspotting meets The Army Game – but the humour, although present, is limited.
Hamburg in the 90s was the centre of an anarchic club scene where hard drugs provided the fuel for the self-destructive lifestyle shared by locals and British squaddies. De la Mer was living in Hamburg at that time.
Manny is English and Cal a Glaswegian, both serving in the essential, but less than glamorous, Army Catering Corps. This merged with other combat service support corps to form the Royal Logistics Corps in 1993, during the period of the narrative. Their lives are split between the drudgery and petty discipline of army catering, their student girlfriends, Emma and Steffi, and the rave scene.
Manny is bright and perceptive. He is serving with the catering corps having failed his infantry training but also after informing on his sergeant-instructor from that period, a systematic bully who had degraded and humiliated him. For all that Manny hated Sergeant Blake, he also failed there: to inform is to break the code, to betray the essential traditions that bond soldiers to each other.
Manny’s mother is a teacher, his father a police officer. Their high expectations of him have never been met. He perceives himself as having failed – at school, at work, and in the army, and of having failed his parents. There is desperation in Manny’s perceptive but bleak view of the world.
Manny ends in military prison, along with Ian, the novel’s most unsavoury character, after having been caught smuggling drugs back from Holland into Germany. The betrayer knows that he has been betrayed: but by whom?
Cal, the Glaswegian, lapsed Catholic, son of an alcoholic mother, is equally bright, but his gallus Glasgow humour is part of a more optimistic outlook. Cal, like Manny, has lost his rave-scene girlfriend, and although he hopes for something better from life he also breaks the honour code.
De la Mer has written an ambitious first novel. There are times when the book falters. Perhaps she has spent too long in Brighton, but Cal’s Glasgow patois takes inappropriate intellectual turns and occasionally is simply wrong: children, Ms de la Mer, are known as “weans” in the west, not “bairns”! Her writer’s craft is still developing and the strategy of having the characters directly address the reader strains the narrative.
The setting, however, is unique and it’s a brave author who enters such worlds, the army and the rave scene, creates a credible and fast-moving plot and hits some big philosophical issues. For all the concern with matters military and drug-related, this book is about loyalty and betrayal, about friendship in adversity, about love and its shallow proxies.
It is also about an all-too-common contemporary hedonism. When that hedonism meets army discipline, the young men sucked into the forces and coming to terms with the military system can either be made or broken by the experience. There is another book brewing and, if de la Mer can hold her fine grasp of character and her perceptive engagement with serious issues, it could be a bright addition to the contemporary literary scene.
– Read more by Alex Wood.