4 a.m. - Book of the Month
by Nina de la Mer
Remember the 90s? There wasn’t Facebook, Spotify or wireless internet, but there were those nagging signs of moral decay in society and the British governing elite. Some things just stay the same.
4 a.m. is a novel to make you reel, both with pleasure and with a hard shudder of familiarity. We follow a series of episodes with the Essex-born Manny and Glaswegian Cal, both likeable chefs in the British Army Catering Corps in Hamburg in the early 90s. It’s certainly an interesting experience. Each episode could almost stand as a short story or theatrical monologue in their own right, but Nina de la Mer skilfully pulls together both Manny and Cal’s accounts, from life in army camp, prison cells, to the weekly nights out in Hamburg, where “anything goes”. The author nails the pair's idiolect, fusing bad language and wit – Manny suggests Cal would enjoy reading TRAINSPOTTING but Cal concedes, “I know fuck-all about trainspotting, so I’m scoobied why he thinks I’d like his book” – alongside the drug and alcohol-fuelled extracts where the narratives insist on shifting and blurring with an invasion of hallucinations and paranoia.
I particularly treasure the night Manny and the group goes to the cinema to catch one of the latest English-speaking releases. De la Mer – in just one of many occasions - brilliantly captures the high octane, kinetic cerebration of Manny; the narrative twitches and soars with Manny high on speed and also itching to get into his girl’s knickers. It’s one of countless funny moments in the book, but the jokes and pockets of 90s nostalgia are never formulaic; de la Mer has thought through how to make the book both evocative and significant, and by creating flawed characters who aren’t cut for the discipline and routine of army life, the book opens up many questions.
The wry timing of the release of 4 a.m. and the UK riots underlines the gravity surrounding young people and their destiny, and that well-known paradox of where the blame lies: with the individual or those at the top? 4 a.m. doesn’t seem to want to give a clear answer, and it’s all the better for it.
Published by Myriad Editions, 272pp
Read our interview with Nina de la Mer.