Nina de la Mer’s debut novel, 2011’s 4a.m., was as refreshing as it was unexpected, announcing the arrival of a writer who effortlessly expressed the problems of a generation facing up to growing pains as they desperately tried to hold on to their youth while the problems of adulthood threaten to halt the good times.
Like 4a.m., de la Mer’s new novel, Layla, focuses on that move towards becoming adult, whatever that is. Set over eight days, it follows the thoughts and deeds of Hayleigh, who prefers to be known at work as Layla. That work is as a lap dancer in a club in Soho, and as the novel opens we join her mid-dance, beginning to realise that this life is not as glamorous as she was led to believe it would be, and that working in ‘the classiest spot Up West’ is relative. Some may think this unbelievably naive, but what becomes clear as the novel unfolds is that Layla is not as worldly as she may appear at first, and there is a level of vulnerability and even innocence which is being stripped away by the day.
Layla comes to the conclusion that something in her life has to change, and quickly, although she is not yet sure how to go about it, and what exactly it is. The second person narrative gives up a few clues at a time as to her true predicament, as well as the mostly ignored text messages on her phone which punctuate the chapters. Her confusion, as her thoughts jump from her immediate priorities such as finishing her set before her period starts, to the always present worries and regrets about her previous life and those she has left behind, is understandable as her situation spins out of control. She seems to live most of her London life as in a dream, simultaneously trying to forget yet desperate to remember. Her increasing use of drink and drugs is unsurprising as it is the only way she can cope with the present and dull the pain of the past.
Writing in the second person is a difficult narrative technique to pull off. If you get it wrong you risk alienating the reader, forcing them inside the head of someone they don’t warm to, much more so than when writing in the the first or third person. It takes a few pages to tune in and adjust to Layla’s often confused thoughts, but once you get accustomed to her personality and predicament you are on her side, even as she makes mistakes and puts herself in situations which can only end badly. You care for her, worry for her, and become wrapped up in her story. In this way Layla reminded me of one of my all time favourite novels, Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice, and if you’ve read it you’ll realise how high such praise is.
Layla comments on the current cultural obsessions of celebrity and pornography, two areas where the lines are often blurred as references to Paris Hilton sex-tapes and the qualities of various Big Brother contestants and unnamed TV presenters make clear, and sex in the novel is mostly portrayed as unerotic and clinical, a performance where positions are taken and lines delivered as if they have been learned for such occasions. Everyone in Layla’s world is performing to a greater or lesser degree, and maybe we all are; living in a modern world where we believe someone is always watching us. Even as Layla feels disgust at those she dances for, and increasingly for herself, she still judges her own and other’s bodies by the standards set in newspapers, magazines, videos and on-line, and still dreams that London is a place where she can ‘make it’.
The scenes where she is talking to her ‘friend’ Billy Rousseau and his pornographer associate, Kenny, would be funny if they weren’t so casual and chilling. It is little wonder that her thoughts wander as the two consider her as if she were a Best of Breed dog, to be named and then perform. As they do so her mind reflects on the worst of times, perhaps a reaction to her current predicament, but mostly because these are thoughts she cannot ignore for long. But it is not only men who are controlling Layla’s life. She is being manipulated by her mother from afar, and humiliated by her flat-mates at home. Even the ‘sisterhood’ she thought she was part of at work proves to be a fiction, as it becomes another place where she is expected to compete, and where there is always someone willing to go that bit further to get ahead, if not exactly win.
Layla is a triumph as a novel, and as a character. It’s not always an easy read, and nor should it be. Many of the characters in it are horrific, more so to the reader than to the more trusting Layla, but they never become caricatures, partly because de la Mer’s eye for detail and understanding of the way people speak lends them distinct personalities. It’s easy to believe that they too are chasing that something intangible, (fame, wealth, power?) that we have been promised is available to us all, and which Layla is learning is a lie. If you are looking for glamour and thrills you should take yourself elsewhere. Instead Layla is an honest and powerful depiction of the life of a woman who finds her self in an all too believable situation. Where such a novel could have been judgemental and patronising, Nina de la Mer finds empathy and emotion, so much so that you won’t be able to put it down until you have to say goodbye.