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Publisher's Summary

Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020

A Spectator Book of the Year

Who They Was is an electrifying autobiographical British novel: a debut that truly breaks new ground and shines a light on lives that run on parallel but wildly different tracks. 

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.

©2020 Gabriel Krauze (P)2020 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic Reviews

"An astonishingly powerful book. Krauze is an immense new talent." (Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love)

"A timely and vital exploration into London's violence crisis by someone who experienced the sharp end of it. I cannot conjure another work which captures this culture in such depth - or with such brutal honesty - as only lived experience can tell. This is a literary rendering of the Top Boy generation tackling the expected themes of drugs, violence, poverty and social justice - and the unexpected - family, futility and fragility. Krauze's voice is stuck in my head and it is an authentic voice of the streets." (Graeme Armstrong, author of The Young Team)

"Gabriel Krauze is an unbelievably talented writer. No one manages to blend 'literary beauty' and 'an uncomfortable feeling that he's actually quite scary' like him." (Joel Golby)

What listeners say about Who They Was

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Epic and authentic

Can’t recommend this book enough. Gabrielle’s delivery also makes it feel as though you are there with him and his crew through every minute. This book leaves you with a sense of grief for a life that has moved beyond you, but is also gripping and entertaining.

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  • Hincerooney
  • 25-10-2020

Astonishing

This is one of those books that’ll change your world view irrevocably. Both brutal and delicate. Simply brilliant.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 13-09-2020

A must read

Ever wanted to understand the darker side of London, then read this book. Well written from first hand experiences. outstanding.

1 person found this helpful

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  • David M
  • 05-09-2020

Autobiography, crime and violence

A fictional (?) autobiography of Gabriel Krauze, so he is the author, narrator and main character.

Centred around Dickens House and Blake Court - blocks of flats in Malvern Road, South Kilburn, London. You wouldn't want to visit there but you can check them out via Google Street View. We hear in graphic detail of the author's life of crime and violence. Living everyday on his wits, surviving in a threatening, harsh environment. He dives right in at the start, recounting a mugging that he commits with his mate Gottie. They target a rich lady with an expensive watch and diamond ring. They deliberately break her finger trying to get the ring off her. The story of drugs and violence, and the buzz that goes with it, continues in this vein throughout the whole book.

Alongside this is contrasted the author's life as a university student hoping to earn a first class degree in English.

He obviously developed some talent in written English. This is a great book, different from anything I've ever read before. You really feel you are there with him in his street gangs, in prison, in university. It's an easy book to think yourself into.

The books is written and narrated in street language & dialect, so it sometimes takes a while to work out what he's saying. Bunning-a-zute, Kettle, Moves, Nitties, Peas, Shank, Wagwan, Whip, Yute - - keep the Urban Dictionary open!

Unexpectedly, this gets 5 stars from me. (Strange ending though - not sure if there's a bit missing from the recording?)

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  • Joe
  • 10-07-2021

Your enjoyment hinges on your tolerance

Your enjoyment of this book hinges in your tolerance for the lifestyle depicted in it. Personally, I think the people depicted in this book are a scourge on humanity. They have zero ambition, zero desire to leave anything other than a scar on humanity. There are numerous points in the book that the "protagonists" receive life changing amounts of money (through violent crime, of course) and rather than put it towards some means of escape from their dreary lives (they could easily afford a years rent on a flat somewhere nice at numerous points in the story) they instead just fritter it away on tacky demonstrations of reputation like diamond encrusted watches.

They show absolutely zero drive or ambition to escape their miserable lives, and it makes for a very frustrating read. It's written in such a way that this type of lifestyle almost celebrated - it's all about living fast and dying young.

Gabriel has some beautiful prose although he starts to very literally repeat himself from paragraph to paragraph as the book progresses (the same Simpsons reference is made barely 5 sentences apart at one point.)

It's a fascinating insight into a life the majority of us will never see, but it is also profoundly depressing. Not just because of how profoundly depressing their lives are, but how much they seem to relish in being such absolute cancers to civilisation.

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  • Luke
  • 01-02-2021

Just another typical coming of age story :)

I loved this book!


Funnily enough, it was very similar to something that happened to me just last week;


There I was, chillin in my garden when a splittin whip pulled up and out got the local vicar. I was true vexed as this g owed me a bag, but I held my tongue and said, ‘Yo wagwan, for real’. He replied, ‘swear down fam’ and he spudded me, chill like.
Da Vic smiled and I shielded my eyes from his iced-out grills. ‘Rar bro’ I said, ‘why yous be stinkin of cheese?’.
‘Man’ said the vic, ‘you’d no way believe it. There I was, last night in the vestry with the mother superior and we was choppin up a box of crow into z’s. All at once some scatty nitties broke in and blood, there was some real madness. Dem nitties wanted light and dark but I waved my shank and popped a roly off one of them. Mother superior strapped her Guci cos she's mad rich fam and between us we saw them off. But the cheese covered me robes, tidy like, an ah can’t shift da smell’.
I sat back in my deck chair and pushed my strap to one side. I was wearing three pairs of pyjamas to cover the bulge and these M&S garms had cost me some serious peas.
I palmed my favourite shank and with the aid of my zimmer leapt to my feet. The light reflected off the diamonds on my kettle and the vic was momentarily blinded. I raised the shank and just then, I swear down bro, the vic gave me a bag.
We laughed man, we laughed, and we both sat down and started bunning a zoot. That vicar, he right shower I can tell you. We sat back in the sunshine and listened to the happy sound of the local youts in the park. Thems youts and their mandams were shottin their food while sparking up their zoots, and I said, ‘allow it vic, just allow it’.
The vic closed his eyes in a cloud of blue smoke and said, 'happy days bruv, happy days'.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 13-01-2021

Poetry in prose

What a truly remarkable and outstanding book. I was nearly put off by the ?accent/dialect?
but so glad I persevered as it was extremely rewarding and learning a new 'language' was a bonus.
The boy done good. I hope he has more to come.

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  • Dearauntie
  • 27-12-2020

pops with life

However much of it is really the life of the author, the narrator lives a life and puts across the vim, danger, excitement, life, fear and lack of hope. who knows where you go from there.

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  • Anthony Prudence
  • 24-11-2020

An amazing book beautifully written .

This was one of the best listens and at times hardest listen I've had on audible.
A gritty account from the horses mouth not from some bad research.
The Author himself reading it makes this a great listen.
I am in my mate 50s and at the start felt I might need an urban dictionary but by the end of chapter 1 I was well into it .
Well done Gabriel and I look forward to other works you produce.

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  • Dee Roddy
  • 21-11-2020

Brutal yet beautiful

superbly written and read - a heart twisting blend of cruelty and tenderness - an important book that should have made the Booker shortlist. recommend unreservedly .

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 09-10-2020

Utterly Brilliant

This for me is one of the most important books of our generation. He makes you fully understand the mentality of how it is to be immersed in gang life. No big story lines, no shocking twists, just real every day skulduggery that is shockingly terrifying yet so cleverly done that you fully grasp the concept of these kid’s being so far removed from every day life and so desensitised to it all. It’s so grimey and violent yet beautifully poetic and intelligent. He has managed to bring an issue that is extremely relevant and elevate it into the literary world. Unbelievably powerful. Utterly brilliant. This book will never leave me!

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  • masteryehudi
  • 07-10-2020

incredibly impactful

not for everyone, but an incredibly impactful and coherent novel. highly original. unique voice. also has one of the best uses of a Bob Dylan quote I've come across

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