Margaret Busby, Chair of the 2020 judges, says: “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. Included are novels carried by the sweep of history with memorable characters brought to life and given visibility, novels that represent a moment of cultural change, or the pressures an individual faces in pre- and post-dystopian society... As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents ― a truly satisfying outcome.”
With its distinctive argot and moments of ultraviolence, Who They Was is akin to A Clockwork Orange – except that instead of a well-heeled author’s fantastical brainchild, it is a hyperrealistic tale from a writer who has lived the lifestyle it describes. The book’s opening pages feel like a challenge to readers who require a story to have a sympathetic protagonist. Gabriel and an accomplice sneak up on a woman outside her home to mug her: the look on her face is as if she’s “realising a nightmare she didn’t know she was in”. A scene of sickening brutality ensues, and the adrenaline barely lets up for a further 300-plus pages.
As with so many novels that are really thinly disguised memoirs, there is no real structure other than one damn thing after another as it really happened to him; the book is a grim catalogue of violent acts and betrayals, and although the jet-black humour compensates at first for the lack of any chinks of optimism, most readers will end up pretty dispirited – but then that is, I suppose, the only honest way to tell the story.
It is slightly disappointing that Krauze never really conveys what it is that he loves about literature – why he felt that he would “go mad” if he couldn’t study it at university. Gabriel often quotes Nietzsche in moments of self-justification, but he talks more eloquently about the pleasures of Grand Theft Auto than about Salinger, his favourite author.