Annabelle Thorpe, who took one of our London-based creative writing courses back in 2011, was an experienced writer long before she turned her hand to fiction. As a travel journalist, she has written extensively for publications including The Times and The Guardian, is an editor of the online publication 101 Short Breaks and has made a name for herself as one of the UK’s top travel writers. It stands to reason, then, that when she did embark on her career as a novelist, she would draw heavily on her experience of travelling Europe. And her experience shows. Her debut novel, The People We Were Before, which is published today by Quercus, opens in the slow build-up to the breakup of Yugoslavia and progresses with unwavering authenticity.
It’s the summer of 1979, and a war that had been buried and forgotten bursts into nine-year-old Milo’s world. The reality of life in a volatile region could not be suppressed forever, try as his family might, especially now that the former volatility is returning, fiercer and darker than before. Milo lives his life, he grows up, he falls in love, he marries, and he does what he can to keep the impending war out of the blissful family home that he is building for himself. He sees no problem with befriending both Josip, a fellow Croat, and Pavel, a Serb – and he doesn’t understand why his older brother is so set on remaining in the disputed and dangerous region of Krajina. But he soon learns that he cannot keep the darkness from his house when it is intent on marching steadily towards his doorstep. And when the war finally hits its flashpoint and ignites, Milo answers the call by picking up his camera and throwing himself into the world of international war-reporters. Nothing could have prepared him for what was to come.
The 1991-1995 conflict between the Serbs and the Croats of the former Yugoslavia is a complex, nuanced and difficult subject matter, and it is one that Annabelle Thorpe approaches at once with subtlety and stark brutality. The oncoming war is revealed through Milo’s home life, his relationships with his friends and family and his reactions to the different opinions they hold. The delivery of this complex reality is gentle and personal when it needs to be, blunt and gripping when it should be, and skillfully handled at every word. Having no pre-existing knowledge of the conflict is not a stumbling block to reading this novel, if anything it’s an opportunity. This novel explains the conflict in a way no history textbook or Wikipedia page could: there is love, there is loss and, above all, it’s human.
To buy a copy of The People We Were Before, please click here.
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