Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

"Who they was" by Gabriel Krauze (4th estate, 2020)

Long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize. It begins with a bungled robbery involving violence recounted in first-person, streetwise language. Some of the language is explained, so is the morality, the garnering of reputation. The book's largely set in South Kilburn, London. There's a lot of backstory about gang-rivalry, etc. We learn that he's starting an EngLit degree, that his parents are Polish (mother an artist, father an artist who sells to newspapers) and that his twin brother's a violinist. The narrator's won a rap competition - he "spits bars".

He does burglaries with a mate. He gets a gun. He appears in court, using his studying as a reason why he shouldn't go inside. He has to wear a tag and sleep at his parents' flat.

He meets Gotty and moves up a league. He's reading Nietzsche, gets a first for his essays. He plans to get £30k fast, then stop. He likes the buzz of crime. But then he gets put in the notorious Feltham prison. His knife violence becomes casual.

When he and Gotty assault a guy for his watch, the £8k is split £2k for the organiser, £1k for the getaway driver and £2.5k for each of them. Gotty betrays him, leaves suddenly with the narrator's stuff and that of the narrator's mates. He's on "hard food" (heavy drugs). Without Gotty his self-respect weakens, and he knows he'll be a target for people who want to take revenge on Gotty. He gets jumped by maybe 10 people in a chicken take-away. He survives with bruises, swears revenge to preserve his reputation. But he eases off.

Families matter - they're a weakness your enemy can exploit. 2/3rds through he begins to miss family a little, remembering the Easter rituals, etc.

He splits with his long-term girlfriend Yinka. In court he gets away with an assault charge but is done for not doing community service, etc. 3 months. Fortunately it falls in the vac between year 2 and 3. After, he focuses on Uni work. With the dissertation deadline arriving, he has a job down on the south coast, and we learn about how the London gangs work there. He just misses a first. He begins to look at his behaviour in the light of Nietzsche's theories of morality.

Towards the end he says how he went to a private school for gifted kids. At 13 he was mugged. At 14 he mugged for the first time. He says about how people are drawn in, proud to use their room to store the gun of a superior. He's not impressed by government initiatives.

He returns to Kilburn 3 years after moving to South London. Blocks are being knocked down. Gotty's on "Wanted" posters. After more 2 years he returns to live with Uncle T. Gotty's inside. He's giving up coke. His mother's still angry with him. His father has had cancer for 5 years. At the end he watches a moth, tells us about the theory suggesting that moths aiming at the moon are confused by electric light, but he thinks that this moth is content with what it can get.

A reviewer mentioned Clockwork Orange but it's more like "The Wire" - homes are "yards"; "to baly up" means to put a balaclava on in preparation for doing a move, etc. Chapters begin with literary epigrams. The lyricism is what one might expect from an 18 year old - "Night is closing its jaws around the day [] Streetlight fight with shadows and lose [] In the distance, rectangles of yellow float in unshakeable loneliness" - and one can hardly claim that the diction's inauthentic (much of the piece is autobiographical). I lost count of the metaphors involving night - "night unfolds itself from the sky", etc.

Other reviews

  • goodreads
  • Anthony Cummins (Arguably the book’s smartest line comes when he’s let out of jail early and compares it to “that moment when your ears pop after a long flight”. The bristling energy of this hood-life tell-all ultimately flows not only from its ultra-violent vernacular swagger, but from the more subterranean pressure of a family dynamic kept just out of view.)
  • Matt Rowland Hill (The book’s protagonist Gabriel – Snoopz to his friends – spends most of his time bunning zoots and cotching with mandem in da endz (or smoking weed and hanging out with his mates in the neighbourhood))

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