Who They Was is an autobiographical novel that follows a young man named Gabriel, or Snoopz to his friends, as he enters the brutal world of gang life and crime. Gabriel is of Polish descent and grew up in South Kilburn. For him and the young men around him, drugs, guns, violence, stabbings and robberies are the everyday norm. He chooses to go down this path as a teenager and is studying English Literature at university.
The author has a distinctive voice. Who They Was is written predominantly in London slang, which I liked. I had no issues with the writing but for readers who aren’t familiar with London street slang and Jamaican Patois, the language might take some getting used to.
This novel lacks plot and structure but for me, this isn’t a bad thing at all. Gabriel essentially gives us a window into this harsh and unforgiving world. Who They Was begins with Gabriel and his boys about to rob an innocent, unsuspecting woman outside her home. I loved this opening and was hooked from the first page. Throughout the book, we see him deal drugs, rob people (on one occasion, he and a friend pocket £30,000 after breaking into someone’s house), get into fights, go to prison, chase girls and complete his degree. I enjoyed the book overall. Certain chapters engrossed me while other parts were OK. Once I reached the second half of the book, I struggled to put it down.
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Gabriel takes his degree very seriously. No matter what he gets up to on the streets, he hands his assignments in on time and attends lectures and seminars. His passion for literature resonated with me on a personal level. His writing sometimes feels lyrical. Now and then, I would stop and reread certain sentences that sounded beautiful.
Gabriel’s family dynamic is interesting. I liked learning about his home life and the way he depicted his relationship with his parents–especially his strained relationship with his mother. His family are somewhat aware of what he gets up to on the streets but it isn’t spoken about an awful lot. While Who They Was focuses mainly on Gabriel’s intense entanglement with gang life, the novel also touches on family, loyalty, friendship, love and betrayal.
Some people who read this novel will probably say it glamourises gang violence but I don’t feel this way. As the author explains at the end, he has witnessed and experienced firsthand everything that happens in this book, which makes Who They Was an authentic depiction of gang life. In the book, Krauze reveals how gang life can change people; why violence and aggression is the norm; why reputation is everything, why there is little to no space for vulnerability or weakness in that environment and why certain actions are the equivalent of a death wish.
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The final few chapters are brilliant. Gabriel recalls the first time he was robbed as a teenager and reflects on why he chose to go down the path he did. He discusses how socio-economic inequalities can often push people towards criminality, how difficult it can be to leave gang life behind and how and why he eventually distanced himself from it.
The violence in Who They Was made me gasp. I often flinched at the speed that punches were thrown, blades were drawn and lives were ended over what I thought were relatively small things. My shock clearly shows that I’m not built for gang life and wouldn’t last a day in Gabriel’s shoes.
I felt that the book humanised its characters for the most part. A couple of them seemed a tad flat as if they were simply ruthless monsters with no redeeming qualities. The treatment of women in the book made this an uncomfortable reading experience at times. Toxic masculinity and the disrespect and violation of women were so commonplace that it made my chest tighten. The misogyny practically jumps off the pages.
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Gabriel doesn’t shy away from discussing race in the book. The author addresses his whiteness and the privilege it holds. Gabriel tells readers how people often assume he is mixed-race (mixed with black) due to his gang involvement. He also reflects on how a friend probably would have received a longer sentence had he been arrested at the same time as Gabriel, following an assault on the London Underground.
Gabriel’s presence in an environment that is heavily populated by black men is not lost on him. ‘Roadman’ is a radicalised term, one that is usually associated with blackness. Men like Gabriel wouldn’t fit most people’s ideas of what a ‘roadman’ or criminal or gang member looks like. I liked Krauze’s commentary on race, class and privilege throughout the book.
Who They Was is an honest and powerful account of gang life in London, set against a backdrop of council housing estates and tower blocks. I don’t share Gabriel’s experiences and I haven’t witnessed the level of violence he has, but I did feel a strong sense of familiarity with the novel’s setting and characters. There is no judgement or pretence here. Krauze’s story isn’t merely one about criminals and bad people. It concerns those who are marginalised and disregarded due to where they live and their socio-economic backgrounds. If you like stories with clear-cut heroes, villains and happy endings, Who They Was isn’t that kind of book. I suggest putting aside what you’ve seen and heard about gangs and violence from biased UK news coverage and pick up this book because it’s worth reading.
If you enjoy authors like Robyn Travis and TV series like Top Boy, you’ll want to read Who They Was.
My rating: 8/10
Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze is out 3 September 2020 via 4th Estate Books. The novel is longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
*Disclaimer: I received an early copy of Who They Was from the publisher in exchange for an honest review