Layla by Nina De La Mer
5th Mar 2014
Not every first-time novelist is dubbed ‘a female Irvine Welsh’, but that’s how the Scottish-born, Brighton-based Nina De La Mer has been lauded.
While Welsh may be a fellow Scot, and associated with a certain type of gritty realism – often told in a local dialect – this tradition dates back to the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the early 1960s, transposed to the novel by writers like Nell Dunn, and later Pat Barker, Laura Hird and Kerry Hudson.
Layla’s stage name is presumably inspired by Eric Clapton’s whiny ode to a faithless lover. And some of the men in her life – punter Colin, would-be pimp Billy – conform to the ‘sad sack’ stereotype. The story unfolds day-by-day over a tumultuous week, with the present tense conveying a palpable urgency.
The second-person narrative has an almost confrontational tone, drawing ‘you’, the reader, into Layla’s chaotic world. It can also be read as an inner dialogue, giving voice to a person who is valued by her physical appearance, and suggesting that her perspective is not so much unreliable as conflicted.
Each chapter reads like a diary entry, punctuated by unanswered messages gathering dust in Hayleigh’s inbox. These cryptic texts denote a gulf between what Hayleigh chooses to reveal, and what she keeps hidden – and these omissions can be as telling as the fragments we are allowed to see.Each chapter reads like a diary entry, punctuated by unanswered messages gathering dust in Hayleigh’s inbox. These cryptic texts denote a gulf between what Hayleigh chooses to reveal, and what she keeps hidden – and these omissions can be as telling as the fragments we are allowed to see.
Her running commentary is peppered with colloquialisms (‘as it goes’, ‘whatever’, ‘end of’, etc). While this helps to establish Layla’s background, it can be distracting. And although Hayleigh’s pithy observations and rebellious instincts make her an appealing character, at times her passive traits threaten to derail the novel’s momentum.
Layla can’t be easily pegged, either as survivor or victim. Feminism, to her, consists of ‘jealous’ women picketing the nightclub where she works. Her self-centred friend, Ayesha, extols stripping as empowerment, and the more pragmatic Ivana views it as a way to provide for her children.
But as time goes by, Hayleigh fails to thrive. She realises that her male managers encourage the ‘girls’ to compete for the spotlight, and that beyond prostitution, porn stardom or a stint on Big Brother, there is little hope of career advancement. She misses her son, and in one poignant scene counts the money she has stashed away for him.
Hayleigh is too embarrassed to admit her profession to snooty flatmate Cathleen, and admits that the stigma of being a teenage mum on benefits led her into sex work.
Her growing sense of isolation marks her as an outcast in both worlds. She turns to drugs and anonymous sex to blur reality (a condescending boyfriend nicknames her ‘Dolly Daydream’.)
A series of tragi-comic mishaps – including a botched Brazilian wax, and breaking into a neighbour’s flat by mistake – engage the reader’s sympathies and evoke a life spinning out of control.
As in many English novels, from Berg to Dirty Weekend, Brighton – or ‘London-On-Sea’ – features both as provincial backwater and escape route. Layla ends on an ambiguous note which offers the possibility of redemption, but without guarantees.