by Nina de la Mer
Published by Myriad 2011
Review: Jane Turley
Hamburg. The 1990s. The streets are lined with brothels, nightclubs pulsate with music and in darkened corners squaddies pop pills and snort coke. Meet Cal and Manny, two army chefs escaping the clatter of pots and pans, eyes wide, bodies jerking to the rave anthem 4am. One of these young men will leave for Bosnia and one will become a dealer.
One will live and one will die.
You’ll have to read 4 a.m. by Nina de la Mer if you want to discover their individual fates. The novel is a hell of a read and whilst I found it irksome in parts it is an extraordinary debut and shows de la Mer to be a writer of both skill and aptitude. It’s also refreshing to see a female author who is prepared to stray from the clichés of chick lit, psychological thrillers and family dramas and write from the male perspective in a gritty contemporary drama.
Unfortunately, I am probably not best placed to authenticate life on the rave scene in Hamburg. The closest I’ve come to snorting coke is when I dropped a packet of Ariel powder and the only kind of raves I’m familiar with are the ones I perform when someone parks over my driveway. However, I found de la Mer’s characters to be totally believable and absorbing and the settings more real than imagined. To a certain degree the novel was an eye opener to a world, albeit not a particularly pleasant world at times, that up until now I have only imagined or seen on film. Nina de la Mer spent time in Hamburg on the rave scene herself which, no doubt, adds authenticity to her narrative but it is her ability to get inside the head of her characters and portray the masculine mindset with such authority that demonstrates her real talent. Her empathy with the self-destructive mechanism of some young adult males creates a depressing picture of how easy it is, when there is no clear direction or foundation in life, to become consumed by hedonism and the sensual pleasures of sex, drugs and alcohol.
Unfortunately, although 4 a.m. is a satisfying and welcome read in many respects I’m inclined to think it is unlikely to gather a mainstream audience. First and foremost of these reasons, is that the novel is written in two voices; Manny an English squaddie and Cal a Glaswegian who both talk directly to the reader. This was a very effective method of engaging the audience. However, de la Mer’s devotion to writing Cal’s voice in Glaswegian slang was an unwelcome distraction and ultimately marred my whole reading experience. I have no doubt about the accuracy of the voice (de la Mer was born in Scotland, has a degree in modern languages and consulted The Book of Glasgow Patter ) but I can’t help feeling the overuse of Scottish dialect impedes the readability of 4 a.m. and will discourage many readers. I’ve addressed the issue of language and dialect before when I reviewed Cloud Atlas so I am loathe to return to this subject in too much detail except to say that when I’ve reread a word or sentence several times or feel I should be consulting a dictionary I get the same feeling as when I picked up Jilly Cooper’s Riders and saw a cast of 108 listed - mute horror. I enjoyed reading 4 a.m. from different viewpoints but the constant switching between the character’s monologues does make it harder to assimilate the Glaswegian slang. I prefer it when authors give just a flavouring of dialect and leave the rest to the imagination.
If you can, however, digest the language and are not adverse to the subject matter it is well worth making it to the end of the 4 a.m. Effectively, it is a coming of age novel and whilst I’m sure readers will find it amusing in parts and maybe even emphasize with the dilemmas I found it quite a sad novel. Partially, this is because one of the protagonists never actually comes of age and partially because the youthful devotion to drugs left a sour taste in my mouth. The novel reinforces all that I ever thought about drugs – it screws up the lives of the vulnerable.
“…folk who die in their sleep often pass on at 4 a.m. Aye, that’s it, I think, 4 a.m’s a crossroads. A fork in the road between life and death, between day and night and aw. And mibbe that’s what this is about. I mean, what my story is all about – that I’m at a crossroads, changing fae a boy tae a man.”