Book review: How Late it was, How Late

This isn’t my book, it belongs to P. He’s had it sitting on his shelves for as long as I’ve known him and says that while he’s tried to read it a couple of times he’s never got far past the opening pages. This is a common problem for P – if the first few pages don’t grab him he’ll never read the book. However, I was curious and so I borrowed it.


How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman


It’s about a Glaswegian man who, having gone out and got drunk and ended up getting a beating from the police, wakes up in a police cell to discover that he’s gone blind. It’s written entirely in the Scots dialect* and in a stream of consciousness style with no breaks for different chapters. It’s mostly first person, as told by the unfortunate Glaswegian, Sammy, but Sammy gets confused and sometimes switches to third person. It could not be praised for its readability.

It’s easy to see why this is the most controversial winner of The Booker Prize**. The choice of character and the swearing used as punctuation, as is common in Glasgow, would not appeal to the typical literary snob who would rather be reading lengthy fan-fiction about Thomas Cromwell to help them to validate their Oxbridge degree (Disclaimer: I’ve never read Wolf Hall. I’m sure it’s lovely [update: Now I have!]). However, it’s one of the most perfect character studies I’ve ever read and it’s clearly influenced many Scottish writers who followed. Writing in the Scots dialect is to be celebrated, not abhorred. Other great examples include Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway.

It’s a gloriously bleak story too. I’ve mentioned before that I like bleak stories but that they can’t be comical, they mustn’t stray into the ridiculous. This one works because it’s so possible. It’s so likely that I’m sure I’ve met many iterations of Sammy The Drunk Glaswegian, stumbling out of pubs and slumped in bus stops. When you’re reading the book it makes you wonder how many people you’ve spoken to who live lives like this one. So the horrible situations Sammy finds himself in become that little bit darker. Somehow, Kelman then pulls off them impossible and manages to make it funny.

It’s a strange version of the unreliable narrator too. When Sammy pulls you into the immediate present, for example when he’s in conversation with someone, you read what he literally says to that person at that time. When the conversation is over, you read what he was actually thinking. Then, later on, he might change his mind. Or forget something else, or remember a new detail. You’re in his head, so he can’t deliberately mislead you, but he’s so confused and so easily distracted that you can’t really consider him a reliable narrator either.

It’s an intense and visceral novel and, as awful as Sammy can be I found myself rooting for him. He makes terrible decisions but he’s not an intrinsically evil character and is more of an unfortunate underdog. It’s hard to not like him. Nevertheless, the book left me a little drained and while it made me want to go and find the rest of Kelman’s work, I might have a bit of a rest first.

*Interesting fact: Recently people were studying how regional accents change in the UK and found that they were steadily becoming uniform and that they were moving closer to accents in the US. This is probably in part due to technology – we can now speak to anyone anywhere and if we want to do that it helps to be understood. The only region in the UK which bucks the trend is Glasgow where the accent remains stubbornly strong and almost impossible for the uninitiated to understand.

**At the time judges threatened to resign if it won and called it things like “literary vandalism.” Now, if that doesn’t make you want to read it then nothing I write about it will.

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