Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze review – the double life of a London gangster

The tension between the author’s ultraviolent life on the streets and his university studies are at the heart of this autofictional Booker-longlisted debut

Contemporary English fiction is, with a few exceptions, a bourgeois affair: middle-class authors writing for middle-class readers about high-class problems. So Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted autofictional debut by Gabriel Krauze, arrives on the literary scene like the sound of gunfire over a south Kilburn housing estate.

The book’s protagonist Gabriel – Snoopz to his friends – spends most of his time bunning zoots and cotching with mandem in da endz (or smoking weed and hanging out with his mates in the neighbourhood). He has a foot each in two cultures: the university where he is studying for an English literature degree, and the world of gang warfare which forms the greater portion of the book’s subject. It is the tension in his double life that gives this novel its extraordinary force.

With its distinctive argot and moments of ultraviolence, Who They Was is akin to A Clockwork Orange – except that instead of a well-heeled author’s fantastical brainchild, it is a hyperrealistic tale from a writer who has lived the lifestyle it describes. The book’s opening pages feel like a challenge to readers who require a story to have a sympathetic protagonist. Gabriel and an accomplice sneak up on a woman outside her home to mug her: the look on her face is as if she’s “realising a nightmare she didn’t know she was in”. A scene of sickening brutality ensues, and the adrenaline barely lets up for a further 300-plus pages.

Gabriel Krauze.
Gabriel Krauze. Photograph: 2020 Booker Prize/PA

Gabriel’s world is, for the most part, luridly amoral. But Who They Was is insightful about the psychology of ethics and violence. In a seminar on Nietzsche the morning after another night of crime, he points out: “Morality is just a rule of behaviour relative to the level of danger in which individuals live. If you’re living in dangerous times, you can’t afford to live according to moral structures the way someone who lives in safety and peace can.” Elsewhere, after a gunfight, he observes: “It’s mad how you can live in a city and never see any of this. Or you just see faint smudges of it every now and again around the edges of your existence.” Who They Was is a subtle, unflinching novel that deserves to win wide acclaim for bringing this hinterland into focus.

• Who They Was is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Matt Rowland Hill

The GuardianTramp

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