Review: How Late it Was, how Late by James Kelman

This Booker Prize-winning novel is unusual, to say the least.  Sammy is a small-time shoplifter who gets busted one morning after a weekend drinking binge, most of which he doesn’t remember.  And somehow he’s completely lost his sight.  The story is told entirely in a lower-class Scottish dialect, and it takes a while to get into the language and the cadence:

There wasnay much he could do, there wasnay really much he could do at all. No the now anyway. Nayn of it was down to him. It would be soon enough but no the fucking now. So fuck it, get on with yer life. Sammy had turned back onto his side, he wished he could fall asleep.  But the trouble with sleep is ya cannay just fucking.  (p. 29)

Got that?  How about 374 pages of it, with no chapter breaks?  When I started reading, I thought I would really dislike this book because of the dialect and the almost continuous use of the f-word.  But after a while, I realized that Sammy sounded just like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and he had kind of grown on me.  Sammy first finds himself first in jail, and when he is let go and returns home, discovers his girlfriend has left him.  Because of his new disability, everything about daily living is a challenge.  But there’s humor in his story, too, most notably in the ridiculous bureaucracy he encounters when attempting to register for disability benefits.  Sammy’s life has been a hard one, lived mostly on the streets and in pubs, and it becomes clear that he is his own worst enemy, remaining just a step away from complete self-destruction.

I’m not sure I would recommend this book, but in an odd way it wasn’t bad.

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10 thoughts on “Review: How Late it Was, how Late by James Kelman

  1. I intended to read this book this year, as part of the Complete Booker Challenge. However, deucekindred’s review last week made me have second thoughts, and after reading your review, I’m almost sure I don’t want to read this anytime soon.

    An entire book written in dialect, with no chapter breaks? it really really really doesn’t sound like my thing!!

    • Thanks for the link to deucekindred’s review. I can understand taking a pass on this book. I would not have read it myself, except I’m just a few books away from having read all of the Booker Prize winners!

  2. I remember the ‘ho-ha’ when this won The Booker. The uproar must have added thousands to the eventual number sold. I would imagine there are episode markers where you can create a break for yourself, but I know I couldn’t cope with the use of the f-word.

    • Interesting comment about the public reaction when this won the prize. I imagine it was controversial! Which is not always a good reason to win …

  3. I see we have similar thoughts on this book. As such I don’t mind dialect after all some of my fave books are trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange and Everything is Illuminated but For How Late I just was annoyed.

    and thanks for the reference Miss Cookie! 🙂

  4. LOL! I got that, but admit that a whole book could be a bit much. I’m hoping to read this book in the next week or two. I hope that I can become immersed in the dialect and that it reads naturally after a while. Wish me luck!!

    • Jackie, I did manage to become immersed in the dialect and am sure that you would, too. It even made sense after a while. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this book when you get to it.

  5. It’s on my TBR too, Laura, and I must admit I’m intrigued. I recently read Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor, and it’s also about the underclass. Sometimes books like this are a challenge because they’re about experiences remote from most people’s and they’re written using a sub-culture’s language – but I’ve always read to expand my understanding of the world and I like to think I’m open to understanding worlds I don’t much like the sound of as well as those that are more familiar.
    I must get on with my Booker challenge reading – I
    haven’t done any this year yet!

    • You make some good points, Lisa. I agree one of the benefits of reading is to expand our understanding of the world. This book certainly did that!

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