Tuesday 7 March 2017

The People We Were Before by Annabelle Thorpe @annabellet @QuercusBooks #MyLifeInBooks

If war is madness, how can love survive?
Yugoslavia, summer 1979. A new village. A new life. But eight-year-old Miro knows the real reason why his family moved from the inland city of Knin to the sunkissed village of Ljeta on the Dalmatian Coast, a tragedy he tries desperately to forget.
The Ljeta years are happy ones, though, and when he marries his childhood sweetheart, and they have a baby daughter, it seems as though life is perfect. However, storm clouds are gathering above Yugoslavia.
War breaks out, and one split-second decision destroys the life Miro has managed to build. Driven by anger and grief, he flees to Dubrovnik, plunging himself into the hard-bitten world of international war reporters.
There begins a journey that will take him ever deeper into danger: from Dubrovnik, to Sarajevo, to the worst atrocities of war-torn Bosnia, Miro realises that even if he survives, there can be no way back to his earlier life. The war will change him, and everyone he loves, forever.

The People We Were Before by Annabelle Thorpe was published in paperback by Quercus Books on 23 February 2017.   The People We Were Before is the author's debut novel and received some wonderful reviews when it was originally published in hardback last year.

Many years ago, back in the early 1970s, my Nana visited Yugoslavia for a holiday. She returned full of praise, she told me about the beauty, and the people. She loved it and her stories fascinated me, it was a place I wanted to visit too.

When leader Tito died in 1980 things changed dramatically for this country and the people, and sadly, our television screens became full of scenes of war and desperation as the Balkan state countries all demanded autonomy, The Balkan conflict was huge and devastating and changed Europe as we knew it.

Annabelle Thorpe has cleverly and beautifully recreated these times in The People We Were Before, this is a stunning book, yet it is also heartbreaking and terrifying. This author has created a lead character in Miro who the reader can follow from childhood as he makes his way in an ever changing landscape, surrounded by friends and family who have conflicting beliefs,  and through the horrors that he encounters, and the sorrow.

The People We Were Before is an important novel, that covers recent history. It is powerful, moving and fascinating. A very impressive debut.   And yes, I've finally taken the plunge; my first trip to Croatia is booked, we fly to Dubrovnik in September!

I'm delighted to welcome Annabelle Thorpe here to Random Things today, she's chosen the books that have inspired her and left an impression on her for My Life In Books

My Life In Books ~ Annabelle Thorpe

What a lovely thing to have to think about; the books that have made the most impact, or defined certain stages of my life.  A bit like Desert Island Books (does this mean I can have one album as well?)  It’s interesting to look back on how your reading tastes change over time; mine have swayed from British to American, to Middle Eastern authors, and from novels to non-fiction.  It’s so hard to pick just a handful, but here goes.

The greatest children’s book(s) ever written.  The adventures of a ‘Bear with Little Brain’, lugubrious Eeyore and wise old ‘Wol’ were the stories that taught me how to read.  But I learnt much more than that from Pooh and his coterie; the value of friendship,  the importance of kindness and – of course – the problems that come from overindulging in ‘hunny’.   Any book that can have such an appeal to children, and carry such meaning for adults, is a work of genius.  The original illustrations by E H Shepherd are beautiful too.

I adored the Mr Men.  I collected the books, was glued to the TV series and even had my sister make me a fat, blue, bandaged Mr Bump.  He was one of the earliest Mr Men and always my favourite, not least because I spent most of my early years falling over and banging into things.  It was good to know I wasn’t the clumsiest person in the world.

Hardly an original choice, but when I first read it, sometime in my teens, it was a glimpse of a glamorous, cocktail-fuelled world that just came off the page.   I didn’t know enough then to appreciate Fitzgerald’s spectacular prose, or his clever use of Nick Carraway as an unreliable narrator.   I just remember feeling transported to a different world, one that was fabulous and fragile and unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Years later, I wrote a travel piece about the locations in Gatsby and drove around Long Island where the book was set.  It was like a kind of pilgrimage.

I read this book in my early twenties and it absolutely blew my mind; half the time it was like some literary acid trip, with strange images of African street-children and spirits blurring together on every page.  I’d never read anything so dense, so other.  My sister read it at the same time, and even now, if something weird happens when we’re together, we’ll just go ‘leg-head’.  We know what we mean.

This is the book I wish I’d written.   A masterclass in beauty, suffering and sorrow, the twin stories of Laila and Mariam manages to combine insights into traditional Afghani life, the horrors of daily existence under the Taliban and the struggle to maintain any semblance of normality.  It’s the kind of book that is an absolute dream to read, but a nightmare if you’re a fellow author, because you know you’ll never produce anything half as good.

I lived in Turkey for a short time in my mid-twenties; it was the beginning of a love affair with the Middle East as a whole, including its literature.   Gibran was a Lebanese-American poet, who knitted together 26 fables, to create ‘The Prophet’; a tale of a wise man, Al Mustapha, who is about to sail back to his homeland after 12 years in exile on an island.  Before he leaves, individual islanders ask him questions about life, love, family and death.  First published in 1923, it’s never been out of print; often people will know quotes from it without realising they’re from the Prophet.   It’s a beautiful, thoughtful book.

I struggle with humour in books.  So often it misses the mark, or is too clanging and obvious to be really funny.   For me, Alan Bennett’s wry, observational style is a thing of beauty, and never more so than in this story of what happens to the Queen when one of the corgis accidentally drags her into a mobile library. . .and she begins to read.  Catapulted into a hitherto unknown world of books, she soon begins to question her traditional world view.  Brilliant.  (On the subject of humour, an honourable mention here for Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes; a brilliant satire on what happens in Germany when Hitler wakes up in 2012 and decides to stage a comeback).

When I was researching The People We Were Before, I needed to understand the world of war correspondents, so I read a lot of biographies.  This stood apart; the tale of Loyd’s journey from ex-serviceman and heroin addict, to rookie war reporter in Bosnia, and then Chechnya, is a wincingly-raw read that pulls no punches when it comes to the reality of modern warfare.  It’s also a story of redemption – Loyd goes on to become a fully-fledged war correspondent, and still writes blistering pieces for the Times.  For my money, he’s one of the best of his generation.

I did an MA a few years ago, and my dissertation was on the Arabist craze of the 1920’s, much of it born of the films of Rudolf Valentino.  His most famous movie was The Sheik, based on the novel by E M Hull.  It’s still available, and is the most terrible pot-boiler, with sex scenes that simply wouldn’t be acceptable now.  It’s the ‘Fifty Shades’ of the 1920’s; a fascinating insight into the social and sexual mores of the time.  It was also a runaway bestseller.

Gardam is my most recent literary discovery; she was recommended to me by my agent.  The story of Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge who began life in Malaya as a ‘Raj Orphan’ manages to encompass colonial life, wartime Britain, the loneliness of a widowed retirement and the decades of legal life in-between.  I love books that tell me about something besides the story, whether a different country or period of history.  Gardam’s prose is so subtle and nuanced, that you’re learning constantly without even realising.  

Annabelle Thorpe ~ March 2017

After sixteen years as an award-winning travel and features journalist, writing for The Times and many other national broadsheets and magazines, Annabelle made the transition to fiction with The People We Were Before, the tale of a young boy and his family living through the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The book was born of her experiences in travelling to Croatia for over thirty years, and witnessing the country's spectacular fall and rise. 

As a travel writer, she has visited over 50 countries, including driving through the Omani desert, trekking in the New Zealand rainforest, learning (and failing) to sail in Bermuda and narrowly escaping being run over in Tripoli. Her fiction brings in locations she knows intimately; Croatia in The People We Were Before, and Marrakech and Qatar in the upcoming City of Untold Stories.

Next year, Annabelle will be leading two escorted tours of Croatia, based on the locations in The People We Were Before, and co-hosting a week's writing course in Kalkan, Turkey.

Follow Annabelle on Twitter @annabellet

Or drop by www.annabellethorpe.co.uk


1 comment:

  1. I love the sound of this book, I find it fascinating how people survive through pivotal moments in history. Great post.