“Who They Was” by Gabriel Krauze – An Unforeseen Duality

“Who They Was” by Gabriel Krauze (Header image)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Gabriel Krauze is one of the few people who truly managed to escape life among the gangs of London, and in his first published novel, titled Who They Was, he takes us to the heart of a culture long-hidden in the shadows. It tells the story of Gabriel, a university student learning about English literature by day, and a member of London’s gang-ridden underworld by night, known to most as Snoopz.



Gabriel Krauze Drags us into his World

Seen from the outside, the realm of street gangs doesn’t appear too complicated to decipher, overtly not differing in any substantial way from the common depictions of organized crime. This makes it all too easy to forget these street gangs are composed of real people with their own shackles and aspirations, as is the case with the protagonist of Gabriel Krauze‘s autobiographical novel, Who They Was.

Before talking about the story itself, I think it’s worth mentioning Krauze probably knows a whole lot more than most about London gangs, having himself been part of the world for a long time since childhood. Though this book is a work of fiction, there is no doubt in my mind it contains many true elements stemming from the author’s personal experiences and first-hand observations.

The story follows a young man named Gabriel, who also serves as the narrator for the entire experience. He’s living in two different worlds, with the first being the one where is known as a regular, party-loving university student, dedicating his time to unravelling the mysteries of English literature. Outside of the classroom, however, he’s a completely different story.

To virtually everyone else who knows him, he goes by the name of Snoopz, and is a long-time member of London’s vicious gang-ridden underbelly. Despite the appearances he puts on for the benefit of his classmates, he is all too well acquainted with drugs, guns, knives, treachery, thievery, robbery, and everything else which comes along with the territory.

While navigating his two different lives he comes to the realization that he must decide on who he really is, and what kind of life he wants to choose for himself. With his loving parents and education on one side versus the looming threat of prison and deceitful friends on the other, the correct choice seems obvious, but not necessarily so for one caught in the midst of it.

A Unique Firsthand Testimony in Who They Was

For a relatively obvious reason, there aren’t many former gang members who go around writing books about their past. From a simple lack of motivation to fear of angering former partners and enemies, there were many reasons for Gabriel Krauze not to write about this given subject. For this reason alone, I must sincerely congratulate him on finding the resolve for finding a way of putting his past on paper and affording us a glimpse into a world largely hidden in the shadows.

Gabriel‘s narration is fairly detail-oriented, and many passages in Who They Was are dedicated to simply showing the kind of world the author grew up in. Rather than painting every difficult scene in tragic colours, he simply relates to us things as they are, often adding his own observations into the mix.

Naturally enough, through his voice we are also given a revealing window into the mind of not only the author, but in a more general sense, of someone who has grown up with the gang life from an early age. He provides precious insight into the morals and values such an upbringing can impart on someone, in the process answering some questions about the choices made by those people.

Rather than simply being the story of one man, it is the story of all the young boys forced to live in the inner city underworld, because sadly, their fates don’t differ much from one country to the next. The author shows how tribal rules and destructive tendencies tend to reign supreme in those environments, and if nothing else, he made me understand why precisely it is so difficult for people to make it out of those pocket realms.

Additionally, the dual life led by the protagonist mirroring the author’s own is fascinating in its own right. Gabriel Krauze conveys quite thoroughly all the difficulties which arise with such an arrangement, sometimes even taking us for brief trips into the domain of comedy, which I wholeheartedly welcomed considering the amount of heavier subjects.

The Many Who Didn’t Make It

I would lean towards classifying this novel as a slice-of-life sort of work, but this doesn’t mean there is no concrete plot to follow. It is told in a rather linear fashion from start to finish, and is almost entirely centred on Gabriel’s (the character) slow and arduous escape from the inner city and its gangs to the regular life most of us have the blessing of knowing.

As far as the prose itself is concerned, Krauze treats his readers like adults and throws the full London underground vernacular at them from the very start. If, like myself, you are planning to enter this book without any kind of prior familiarity with the topic and setting, then do be prepared for some detective work to decipher the meaning of certain slang terms. While a considerable challenge at first, after fifty or so pages I got used to it and knew the meanings of the more commonly-used terms.

There is another aspect to this book which initially felt like another challenge, but I slowly came to see it as a stylistic choice: the sheer amount of characters. Initially, you’re going to be bombarded with many names, but few of them tend to remain, for one reason or another. I’m certain it mirrors the author’s memory of his own past, and after the first hundred pages or so the stream slows down and you can easily identify all the important characters.

Though you would assume a story of this nature would have a relatively slow pace, things actually tend to advance at what I’d call a fairly accelerated rate, with there always being new and exciting (for better and worse) events barging their way into Gabriel’s life. The moments of self-reflection are rarely long and always agreeably spaced out so as to never slow things down for too long.

PAGESPUBLISHERPUB. DATEISBN
336Bloomsbury PublishingJune 29 2021978-1635577662

Ultimately, Who They Was is a story which Gabriel Krauze uses to not only expose his world to the reader, but also challenge them to understand how everything functions, how the people think, and why everything is the way it is. It’s a challenge to show understanding and compassion, a challenge to see the regular people behind the figures twisted by the destructive toxicity of their upbringing.

The Final Verdict

Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze is a powerfully absorbing autobiographical novel, a piece of literary fiction carrying a hefty dose of truth about the people caught in the grinding wheels of inner city gang life.

If you’re looking for a novel which takes you deep inside the realm of London street gangs and life in its inner city, or are simply looking for a book capable of exposing underexplored facets of human existence, then I believe this novel will be of utmost interest to you.

Video: Gabriel Krauze Interview on Sep 23, 2020


Gabriel Krauze (Author)

Gabriel Krauze

Gabriel Krauze is an English author who has recently published his first novel, Who They Was, which was long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize as well as the Booker Prize. Akin to the protagonist of his novel, Krauze was himself drawn from an early age into a life of crime among the gangs of London, a world he now aims to display through his writing after leaving it behind.

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