Set in a British Army
base in Germany in the 1990s, Nina de la Mer’s debut novel is stunning. Cal and
Manny, the narrators, work in the catering unit where, bored, young and
inexperienced, they turn to drink and drugs to relieve boredom and try make
sense of an army career in peacetime.
They met at training camp and in spite of very different backgrounds
became close friends. Cal, a Scot from
the deprived east end of Glasgow has a dysfunctional family and a lingering
attachment to the Roman Catholic religion: Cal is a thinker. Manny, product of an English grammar school has disappointed his parents who had high hopes for him. Disconsolate, restless and without purpose he joined the army.
Both Cal and Manny are influenced by lain, a regular soldier. Cal and Manny are young and gullible but lain is potentially evil with
no sense of loyalty. Cal and Manny
become seriously involved in drugs and Iain, a dealer, involves the hapless Manny
which leads to the novel’s main tragedy.
The talent of this novel is in its racy writing and flawless characterisation. The Glasgow dialect is perfection in contrast to the colloquial English of Manny and Iain. The introduction of timely events and trends
increase credibility. Cal’s deep thoughts and fears about his religion and his
alcoholic mother run in parallel to Manny’s feelings of being a ‘loser’ who has
never belonged and no longer cares. Manny’s gentler side is shown in his feelings for Cal and his girlfriend, Emma.
Nina de la Mer delves
deep into the male psyche with extraordinary perception. The frankly graphic
language, due to its brilliant delivery, is never offensive only adding to
characterisation and insightful writing. As the reader is drawn into the
narrative he or she is questioned by the narrators: a talented writing device.
This is a ‘must read’ novel of British Army life in peacetime overshadowed by
war in Bosnia, where Cal is posted with
life-changing consequences. Gripping, frightening, funny and sad 4 a.m. is a