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Booker Longlist – Who They Was – Gabriel Krauze


Book Twelve – reviewed by panelists Book Worm, Susie and Nicole.

Gabriel Krauze grew up in London in a Polish family.  

Synopsis from Booker Prize website:  Who They Was is an urgent and electrifying work of autofiction: the first-hand account of a young man who has lived a life of violent crime, and who expresses it boldly, accurately, and at times even beautifully.

Gabriel Krauze came of age among the high rises and back streets of South Kilburn. He was not an observer on the periphery of violence. He was – personally – heavily involved in gangs, drugs, guns, stabbing and robbery – all while completing an English degree at Queen Mary’s University. Who They Was comes directly from that experience and as such it is confronting, exhilarating, morally complex, and utterly unique.

(This book does not appear to have a US Publication date)

Book Worm’s Thoughts: I am so not the target audience for this book. I am the kind of person who when watching an action film when the sex, car chase or fight scenes occur would fast forward if alone or as is often the case I am watching with another person I will get out my phone and check out what else is going on in the real world. What this meant is that for 90% of this book I was bored, bored, bored. I found the descriptions of violence, drug taking and generally bigging up the gang life style dull and repetitive and yet for other readers these will be the very things that make the book compelling.

While 90% of the booked bored me (honestly if it was not on the Booker Longlist I would seriously have considered bailing) the other 10% of the book contains interesting philosophical thoughts, turns of phrases that I really enjoyed and a brief glimpse of who Gabriel may have been without the gang life. I particularly enjoyed the ending (and not just because it was the end) when Gabriel looks at the changing face of London and his own life and wonders what does it all mean in the end when there is no-one left to remember events. If only more of the book could have been in this vein the whole experience would have been different.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 2/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 10/20

Susie’s Thoughts: 

There’s a lot to admire about Krauze’s debut; the opening chapter is one of the most immersive pieces of writing I’ve ever read. The prose is at times searing, brutal, and has an authenticity to it that reminded me of A Brief History of Seven Killings. And then there’s Krauze’s personal story; how does a man go from the life he describes to a Booker Prize nominee? It’s an impressive transformation. And yet in the end Who They Was was an uneven and frustrating read for me. After the explosive introduction I felt a little let down during passages that seemed to drag, were overly descriptive, repetitive (how many times was the smoking of a joint mentioned?) and somehow detached given the subject matter. I’ve since read an interview with Krauze and my interpretation is that the detachment was intentional. He meant to convey that it was just his day to day life, business as usual, nothing to get het up about. I respect that decision and yet it led me to feeling disconnected from his character. An added difficulty for a person who doesn’t often warm to non-fiction was that it read quite like a memoir. For some that will be a selling point, but for me it made for a dulling experience. Still, there were flashes of brilliance amidst the tedium, and I’m looking forward to what Krauze writes next.

Writing quality: 2.5/5
Originality: 3.5/5
Character development: 2.5/4
Plot development: 2.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 12/20

Nicole’s Thoughts:   I think it’s super important for humans of privilege to understand the world outside of their bubble of privilege.   I’m watching the TV show The Wire right now and I keep thinking there’s no way this is real … that it’s that bad out there in the US  …. but it is.   And it is in many places, for many reasons and it’s good for us to read books like this to build empathy and maybe find our little ways to help and change our thinking.

That doesn’t make it enjoyable reading; this book is hard to read.  There were parts I liked. but it was a slog and I just couldn’t force myself to finish.   It’s also written in patois which made it difficult to read and at times even follow.

I liked that Booker picked this book to get it exposure and I wish I could have loved it.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 2/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 10/20


  1. Apeirogon 18
  2. Love and Other Thought Experiments 17.5
  3. How Much of These Hills is Gold 16.1
  4. The Shadow King15.5
  5. Shuggie Bain 15.3
  6. Real Life 13.9
  7. This Mournable Body 12.3
  8. Burnt Sugar11.8
  9. Such a Fun Age 11.1
  10. Redhead at the Side of the Road 11
  11. Who They Was 10.6*
  12. The New Wilderness 10.4

(*one of the reviewers didn’t finish)

What do you think about autobiographical novels?

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