How Late it Was, How Late

by jenniemacphee

Jennie MacPhee-Woodburn

James Kelman’s Booker Prize winning novel How Late it Was, How Late tells the story of shoplifting ex-con Sammy, who awakens in an alley after a two day drinking binge.  After starting a fight with a pair of policemen, he finds himself in jail, abandoned by his girlfriend and completely blind.  The story takes off, following Sammy’s life as he attempts to deal with the authorities, gain Disability status and essentially struggle to survive in rough Scottish society.

How Late it Was, How Late is written in an informal style that is quite uncommon in several types of writing pieces.  There are no chapters, nor any consistent sentence or grammatical structure.  Many readers may find it quite difficult to understand and follow in the beginning due to the disorganization and cluttered thoughts.  However, Kelman wrote in this style in order for Sammy to really get into the reader’s head.  The words are Sammy’s exact thoughts on paper, making it easy to understand his thinking because it is very honest and blatant.

Trust is a main theme reoccurring throughout the novel.  Due to Sammy’s unexpected case of blindness, he is naturally left to question and be suspicious of everyone he meets in order to protect himself.  When Sammy meets a neighbour who is referred to as Boab, Sammy says “It wasnay that he didnay trust him, he did trust him…ye just don’t take chances, ye don’t take chances.  That’s all there is to it” (149).  Kelman does an excellent job of, from the perspective of Sammy, emphasizing descriptive sounds and feelings in replacement of the typically large amounts of emphasis on sight in literature.  For example, “The stone wall was wet.  Obviously it was wet it was raining.  Just it felt funny, damp and gritty.  It had a good smell, fresh…” (247).  This is another example of how Kelman writes in such a way to highlight the protagonist’s struggle and circumstance.

A new lifelong challenge, and reoccuring theme that is presented to Sammy is learning to become independent.  One of the greatest struggles he comes to terms with early on in the book is to break his habit of always asking for assistance with everything he does.  When Boab says to him, “I’ll do it for ye son don’t worry about it”, Sammy replies, “Aye but I want to do it myself I mean…”(146).  The reader can see here that he needs a lot of help in the beginning but understands he needs to learn to become an independent man.

The language in How Late it Was, How Late is very coarse and vulgar.  Because the novel is written as direct thoughts from Sammy’s head, the use of language is a clear reflection of the feelings he has in response to the struggles in life he is faced with.  As well the language gives the reader an insight into Scottish society.


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