Gabriel Krauze wastes not a single word getting to the action in his debut. Where many novelists hold their readers’ hands in the opening pages, slowly introducing them to the narrator, the world, and the characters that inhabit it, Who They Was instead pushes them face first and mid-sentence:
“And jump out the whip and I’m hitting the pavement and it’s this moment— when you jump out of the car and it’s too late to go back— when you know that you’re definitely gonna do it, even though the way the adrenaline bursts through your body makes you wish for a second that you weren’t here.”
Before readers can establish where exactly here is, the narrator (also named Gabriel) details how he and his friends attempt a botched robbery of a woman as she unlocks the front door of her house. These opening pages are frantic and frenzied, as the woman’s husband steps outside and struggles to get her inside and Gabriel breaks her finger while trying to steal her wedding ring before snatching her handbag instead and sprinting off down the street to catch up to his getaway car, which has left without him.
If you’re expecting some narrative space to reflect and take a deep breath after this action, you’ll have to hold it for a few hundred more pages.
First published in Great Britain in 2020 and landing on that year’s Booker Prize longlist, Gabriel Krauze’s autobiographical Who They Was explores his life growing up in the South Kilburn housing estate in London and balancing his pursuits as a college student and gang member. While many works of autofiction exist in a particularly murky space between fiction and nonfiction—in which it’s intentionally left unclear what elements are or aren’t taken from real life—Krauze has made it a point to make clear that much of the violence he describes did happen, even going as far to say in an interview with Vice, “the character is not a fictional character, it’s me.” The novel is carefully constructed in a way that highlights this approach of nonfictionalizing its fiction, as it actively pushes against traditional Western narrative structural elements. Krauze isn’t particularly interested in providing a clear exposition or climax, and any epiphanies that do occur ultimately emerge as the narrator matures, not because the story he’s telling requires it. Of course, these are all elements we as readers to some degree have come to expect in our stories, because resolutions are a comfort. But reality, as both the narrator and author know, rarely offers simple endings.
Instead, Who They Was reads as if you were listening to a close friend tell stories on a lazy afternoon. The novel unfolds episodically, often bound together not by a coherent timeline but by theme. In one chapter Gabriel discusses his relationship with his girlfriend, whereas in another he tells a story about his search to buy a proper gun. Even within each chapter, it’s not uncommon for the narrator to switch topics from paragraph to paragraph, as a story about moving into his uncle’s house recalls the lingering marks of traumatic deaths that occurred on each specific block. While this ever-shifting focus may be disorienting at first, readers will quickly settle into the rhythms of this encapsulating narrator. In fact, Who They Was is often reminiscent of another Booker Prize honoree, A Brief History of Seven Killings, as both are masterworks of voice and purposeful digressions, moving like verse while also knowing the exact moment to strike with an unsettling and unforgettable scene.
It must also be noted that while rewarding, Who They Was can also at times be a punishing read. Because of its relentless pace and close-to-the-bone action with limited interiority, it’s quite possible that some may begin to feel worn down or numb to the litany of violence and tragedy that the narrator describes. As a white male writer coming from a working class background, I have to admit that while reading through the early chapters of the novel I found myself lost in a critical, cliched writer’s workshop space. If only the author left spaces for reflection, I thought, and what could this story gain from more internal thought? And at some point, as I realized I was no longer reading the book in front of me but instead the book I would find more “pleasurable”—whatever that actually means—I had to stop myself and simply restart from page one.
I only mention this so I can say that our comfort as readers is not the responsibility of the author. Many have preconceived notions of how fiction should or should not operate—constructed through decades of literary canon created largely by white, rich men (and literary bodies such as the Man Booker)—that have us seeking moments of relief and resolution. We crave endings that follow pivotal turning points for the main character. We like feeling whole, like something ultimately was gained. And we expect sections where the narrator explains how they are truly feeling.
But Who They Was doesn’t work this way, and I shouldn’t have expected it to. Because stopping to reflect is a privilege too. Later in his interview in Vice when he was asked about his response to the coverage of the violence portrayed in the book, Krauze answered:
“… you’re not supposed to like it. You’re not supposed to read my book and be like, this is great. No, you’re supposed to feel horrified. I want to give people adrenaline rushes when they’re reading my book—the type of adrenaline rush you get when something bad is about to happen, when you get those butterflies that make you feel sick. The association I have with butterflies is not to do with love, or the anticipation and excitement of love, or whatever. To me, the concept of butterflies is when your body is preparing itself for violence, for something bad to happen.”
Who They Was is a powerful, challenging, and fearless debut from an author with a story to tell and the talent to tell it. And if you let yourself get swept away by this narrator, you may just find yourself reconceptualizing your reading process.
Who They Was
By Gabriel Krauze
Published June 29, 2021
Michael Welch is a daily editor for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.