Lead by the Wrist: A Review of James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late

by nigelcrowe

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“How Late It Was, How Late”, James Kelman’s colorfully written winner of the Booker Prize is not by any means intended for the prudish. If you consider yourself a lived and open-minded individual however, Kelman’s novel is sure to please.

Set in Glasgow, Scotland, “How Late It Was, How Late” finds the reader thrust into the life and thoughts of fowl mouthed, working class Scotsman, Sammy. As a result of some hazy, booze fueled events, Sammy has found himself completely blind. To make matters worse, Sammy’s girlfriend has mysteriously disappeared, leaving him all alone to cope with the challenges of his loss of sight. The novel follows Sammy through his first week of blindness.

While Sammy’s language can be off-putting to some at first, (“…ye’re an ignorant bastard, a fucking dumpling; ye spend all these years inside but ye know fuck all about the system…”) for those who can stand the profanity there is much to be gained from the way in which the novel is written. As opposed to being written in formal literary English, Kelman opted to write “How Late It Was, How Late” in the vernacular of working-class Scotland. Although difficult to understand at first, patience will reward the reader with a detailed and accurate picture of what life is like for many others in positions similar to that of Sammy. As opposed to the watered down, plea of the proletariat to the upper-class cliché, Kelman’s novel comes closer to being an authentic peace of cultural literature.

Albeit crass, the character of Sammy proves himself to be a, sensitive, beaten down realist as the story progresses. Once again, this endearing message of humanity is a gem that only a dedicated reader will be lucky enough to receive.

“How Late It Was, How Late” asks readers to suspend their views of the world and allow themselves to be lead by the wrist into a reality unknown by those fortunate enough to be of an affluent North American heritage. This novel is truly an eye opening case of the blind, leading the blind.


Kelman, James. How Late It Was, How Late. New York: Norton, 2005.


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