How Late It Was, How Late

by tasharennie

Tasha Rennie

How Late It Was, How Late Review

                In his Booker Prize winning novel, How Late It Was, How Late, James Kelman tells the story of Sammy, a working class ex- convict in Glasgow. Kelman’s stream-of-consciousness narrative begins with Sammy waking up in an alley with no recollection of the past two days. Sammy explains, “I had the wages and went straight into the boozer with a couple of mates; and one thing led to another; I woke up in the outer limits somewhere”(4). Irrationally, he picks a fight with some policemen and consequently gets beaten and thrown in jail. He wakes up completely blind. The story follows Sammy as he learns to deal with his newfound disability, while struggling with the disappearance of his girlfriend, Helen, and the challenges of welfare bureaucracy. Immersed in the working class Scottish dialect that is both uncensored and unregulated, the reader follows Sammy’s fragmented conscious through the day-to-day challenges of blindness.

                Kelman’s novel is a character-driven story that is unique in the way that the reader experiences everything through the mind of someone who is without the sense of sight. The reader must rely primarily on the imagery of sound. However, the whole issue of the reliability comes into question due to the nature of the narrator. From the beginning, the reader gets the impression that Sammy is a fairly violent person with alcoholic tendencies, trust issues and problems with authority. The question of whether Sammy is trustworthy as a narrator is relevant. On the other hand, Kelman is somewhat manipulative of the reader in giving these impressions since, on further reflection, Sammy doesn’t engage in any drinking or fighting apart from the in the beginning.

                Kelman’s novel is undeniably a social commentary on the challenges facing the Scottish working-class. At one point Sammy claims, “these sodjers man if ye’re no a fucking millionaire or else talk with the right voice, they don’t give a fuck”(4). The story brings to light the discrimination and threat to the Scottish identity. Additionally, it focuses on a character of little importance that is traditionally marginalised. However, Kelman also provides a commentary on the elitism of literature. Controversy surrounds How Late It Was, How Late in relation to the style in which it was written. The narration follows Sammy’s thought process in an erratic style that is full of digressions and repetition; it also moves back and forth from first person to third person narrative. There are frequent omissions in punctuation and grammar, and the dialect is full of swearing and slang. The result of this is a challenging read. However, the reward is worthwhile, and Sammy’s story pays tribute to the working class culture. Kelman truly succeeds in challenging the conventions of literature.


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