With a violent debut, he reveals a London that is rarely seen

Gabriel Krauze
Gabriel Krauze in South Kilburn in London on June 8, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
LONDON — Leaning over the balcony of a council estate, Gabriel Krauze watched as the police gathered in front of an apartment door and prepared to smash it in.اضافة اعلان

The officers were actors filming a television show, but the scene wasn’t so different from ones Krauze, 35, witnessed growing up in this public housing development.

“When I was living here, the amount of raids I’d see, or just the amount of incidents where the police would come and tape off bits of the estate,” he said. “Like, just there,” Krauze added, pointing toward one apartment block, “a girl got killed a couple years back.” The TV crew was in fact a good sign, he said, suggesting the area was “calming down a bit.”

Krauze, who has the name of his debut book tattooed on his hand, is an anomaly in British publishing — a novelist whose life and work is steeped in a side of London that many writers don’t know about or acknowledge.

His novel “Who They Was” — published by Fourth Estate in Britain last year and longlisted for the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world — is a barely fictionalized, first-person account of his late teens and early 20s. At the time, he was living in Blake Court, a tower named for William Blake that is part of the South Kilburn estate in northwest London. (In Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, “NW,” a fictional estate is set in the same area, with tower blocks named for philosophers.)

“Who They Was,” which Bloomsbury is releasing in the United States on Tuesday, is heavy on London slang — people get shanked, not stabbed, and everyone’s “bare loud and aggi.” It starts with a character named Snoopz trying to steal a woman’s diamond ring (“I always thought if you break someone’s finger you’ll actually feel the bones break, hear it even, but I don’t feel anything at all, it’s like folding paper”), then documents Snoopz’s life, including stabbing a drug addict in the head and breaking his favorite knife in the process, fighting with young upstarts and going to prison.

There are breaks from the violence, as Krauze’s character completes an English degree on the other side of London, hangs out with friends and escapes back to his parents’ house, but reviewers have pointed out that there is little optimism.

“That is, I suppose, the only honest way to tell the story,” Jake Kerridge wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

“I had to have a shower after I read it,” Lemn Sissay, a poet and Booker Prize judge, said in a telephone interview. “I never heard this world spoken in this way before,” he added.

“It’s not trying to give excuses, it’s not trying to contextualize the underclass. It’s saying, ‘This is what it is.’”

Douglas Stuart, who won last year’s Booker for “Shuggie Bain,” his debut novel about working-class life, said in a phone interview, “When you read these worlds in books, it’s normally by a middle-class writer who creates a one-dimensional villain, but Gabriel’s created a world so rich in detail, and motivation and consequence.”

Krauze insisted that the book is far more than a lurid tale.

“It’s a moral confrontation with the reader,” he said, contending that it forces readers to realize that some people commit crime because of their psychology, as well as poverty or a lack of opportunity.

The author’s note in some editions of the book is clearer still. “This is the life I chose,” he writes. “Maybe I was looking for a sense of family and identity that I couldn’t find at home. Maybe it’s the way I found my people and they found me.”

Krauze was born in northwest London to a newspaper cartoonist and a painter who had both immigrated from Poland. He grew up around the corner from the South Kilburn estate, in an apartment where his twin brother practiced violin for hours a day. He became obsessed with books as a child, devouring everything from Tolkien to nonfiction about World War I, and realized that he wanted to become a writer by the time he was 13.

Read more lifestyle