Who They Was
Who They Was is a unique work of autobiographical literary fiction. The book covers a period of Gabriel Krauze’s (or Snoopz’s) life on the streets of North-West London as he navigates a life of crime whilst reading English at Queen Mary’s university.
After reading this book, I was very interested to know what the general public thought about this book. Although I strongly believe Who They Was should have made the shortlist, it being longlisted for the Booker has inevitably given it a much wider readership. Reading through many of the Goodreads reviews, I was frankly infuriated by the comments I saw about this book. There were people, clearly never having been to South Kilburn or anywhere like it, who claimed that Gabriel’s character wasn’t relatable. That they couldn’t empathise with someone who would choose the lifestyle that Gabriel chose for himself - why he would choose the path he did when it wasn’t out of desperation or to feed his family. They could never understand what led these men to commit crime: to them, poor people should suffer, be apologetic for what they are and only resort to a life of crime when it aligns with their moral compass. They have such a detachment from what goes on in the world that they have projected their own sense of morality on a life that is so far removed from one they could ever experience. It makes them uncomfortable to see these people as powerful and autonomous. Let this be a lesson to all readers and writers, Goodreads is not objective truth and the people who review on these sites are not representative of the general populous.
Obviously, Gabriel’s actions are abhorrent, his lack of regard for human life is psychopathic and he chooses to do wrong, knowing that what he does is wrong. But this text is not poverty porn and we are never expected to see Gabriel as a victim - in fact, that is the opposite of what he'd want us to think. He commits crime because he finds it thrilling and it is more profitable than working a 9-5. However, it is also clear that even though he does not kill out of necessity, he is still a product of his upbringing and it’s possible to see why he has gotten to where he is, despite us not necessarily sympathising with him. If you grow up witnessing gang activity and everyone you know is about that life, it is a path that is almost predestined for men like Gabriel. It doesn’t matter if he wants out, the cyclical nature to this life of violence makes it impossible to escape from.
Throughout the book, Gabriel addresses this, especially in his seminars at university discussing crime and punishment. I loved how all of Gabriel’s different worlds (his family home, the flats in South Kilburn and the classroom) were juxtaposed and yet somehow all interlinked. For example, in a lecture discussing Romeo and Juliet, Gabriel notes that revenge is an act of love, a natural instinct that is only squashed by moral training. He relates this to gang culture and the constant back and forth between rival gangs as they seek to settle the score and build a reputation. In another seminar, Gabriel draws on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche who argues that morality is just a rule of behaviour relative to the level of danger in which individuals live. Gabriel explains: ‘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’.
In this novel I was impressed with how Gabriel addresses his privilege and understands how he is able to escape punishment or go unnoticed because of the colour of his skin. He is often used for moves in more affluent areas because it’s well-documented that a white man can pass under the radar, whilst a Black man would not. People often assume that Gabriel is mixed race, in spite of him actually being a second-generation Polish immigrant, because those in authority aren’t able to understand why a white man would put himself in that environment. It makes them uncomfortable to see someone who looks like them involved in gang crime because it stops them from being able to pin blame on one race of people.
At times the misogynistic views and actions of the men in this book made for uncomfortable reading. There were numerous crimes against these women detailed including rape, abuse, theft and adultery. They are used and abused by these men, serving as just another piece of expensive jewellery they can adorn to prove their status. It demonstrates the hyper-masculinised space that these men operate in where every wrongdoing adds credit to their manhood. Krauze definitely made the right decision to avoid a redemptive arc for his protagonist/himself in this narrative.
Let it be known that people who aren’t from London will have to keep the urban dictionary on hand to uncover the meaning of certain slang words but, in my opinion, it definitely shouldn’t put anyone off reading Who They Was. This book is truly in a league of its own and I hope it gets the audience it deserves.
A big thank you to Matt and 4th Estate Books for gifting me this copy of Who They Was.
P.S. @tenellereads has written a beautiful review of this book on her Instagram which I would highly recommend checking out.