Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
"A literary rendering of the Top Boy generation… I cannot conjure another work which captures this culture in such depth – or with such brutal honesty – as only lived experience can tell" Graeme Armstrong, author of The Young Team
"An astonishingly powerful book." - Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love
From the back of the book:
This life is like being in an ocean. Some people keep swimming towards the bottom. Some people touch the bottom with one foot, or even both, and then push themselves off it to get back up to the top, where you can breathe. Others get to the bottom and decide they want to stay there. I don’t want to get to the bottom because I’m already drowning.
This is a story of a London you won’t find in any guidebooks.
This is a story about what it’s like to exist in the moment, about boys too eager to become men, growing up in the hidden war zones of big cities – and the girls trying to make it their own way.
This is a story of reputations made and lost, of violence and vengeance – and never counting the cost.
This is a story of concrete towers and blank eyed windows, of endless nights in police stations and prison cells, of brotherhood and betrayal.
This is about the boredom, the rush, the despair, the fear and the hope.
This is about what’s left behind.
My Review: 3.5/5 stars
This was a mixed book for me as it exposed me to a completely different world that is right outside my doorstep in London. At times, I found the writing really beautiful and the juxtaposition of these vivid analogies describing the fall of night on the London council estates alongside the crimes that were committed made for an interesting contrast.
On the other hand, as this was autobiographical, there were limitations in the storytelling for the reader. The biggest issue for me was the lack of introspection despite this being told from the first person. Krauze's description of how he ended up living this life despite his relatively middle class parents and twin brother who had no association with drugs or crime was limited to a quick story. There was no explanation whatsoever about why he chose to go to university by day while dealing drugs and committing crimes by night with all of his friends. And the conclusion providing little in the way of retrospection of how he arrived at this point in his life.
In general, the members of book club found the author to be a bit arrogant alluding often to all the women he was sleeping with and how his university teachers were constantly expressing approval of his class contributions.
I am glad I read this book as a window into a different life, but I think this was just a look at the surface. I believe it had the potential to be more than just a series of stories by offering more about the author's real motivations - but that may have required Krauze to offer more of himself than he was willing.