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.
I’ve always had an absolute fascination with any books set against the backdrop of the troubled recent past of the former Yugoslavia – I particularly remember Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, The Girl In The Film by Charlotte Eager, Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini, and – more recently – Alison Layland’s Someone Else’s Conflict.
And now I’ve seen some really excellent reviews of The People We Were Before by Annabelle Thorpe – published by Quercus on 21st April, available in paperback, audiobook and for kindle – and have immediately added it to my “must read” list.
I’m delighted to welcome author Annabelle Thorpe to Being Anne today with a wonderful guest post about the book’s background.
The irony is that I never meant to write a novel about war. The book I started writing, probably around a decade ago, is a very different story to what became The People We Were Before. The first half of the book was always set in Croatia – a country I’d been visiting since I was a child, and which I had grown to know well, but originally the second half was set in London, several years after the events of the first. It was a deliberate attempt on my part to swerve writing about the Balkan conflict – a vicious civil war which I knew had inflicted great losses on hundreds of thousands of people. How could I possibly use that as a backdrop for a novel? It seemed too daunting, and somehow inappropriate.
But as time went on, and agents turned down my book, it became clear that showing what happened to Miro, my central character, and his family during the war was where the heart of my story lay. I began doing background reading; books by war correspondents – Jeremy Bowen, Kate Adie, Martin Bell. Those books revealed a world that fascinated me; as a journalist myself, the adrenalin-and-whisky-fuelled world of foreign correspondents held a definite attraction.
But the real push to write about the war came from conversations I had with people in Dubrovnik and Sarajevo. To talk to people who remembered the first sounds of gunfire in the hills, who couldn’t let their children out to play for five years, who kept guns by their beds…these were stories that should be told. In Sarajevo, one of the most moving places I’ve ever visited, I walked in the escape tunnel built underneath the airport runway, laid my hand in the shell-marks on the buildings, painted red and known as ‘Sarajevo roses.’
And over the years, what I’ve heard time and again is the sheer disbelief people felt that the Western European governments didn’t step in to help. I remember seeing Dubrovnik on the news in the early nineties; the fierce shelling, the destruction of much of the old town – but all too often the conflict was dismissed as a ‘Balkans problem’ – as if a conflict in our own back yard, in Central Europe, was just not something that should concern us.
Almost to my own surprise, I moved from not being comfortable about writing about the war, to feeling it was hugely important that I did write about it – that people should know and understand what went on in a country that now is better known as a holiday destination. And what’s interesting, since the book has come out, is the number of people who’ve said to me that they had no idea what happened in Croatia in the early nineties. It’s like a forgotten war. Which is why I’m proud to have written about it.
Writing about war is a difficult process; it has to be gritty and realistic but it’s important not to sensationalise what happened. I wanted my story – Miro’s story – to move readers, but not to upset them; to inform, but not to shock. And as I wrote, I discovered the best way to really show the impact of war is to focus in on one person, one family, and show the terrible destruction that conflict wreaks on even the strongest relationships.
At its heart, The People We Were Before is a book about love, rather than war. It’s about how – and if – love can survive the terrible demands war makes, and whether relationships can ever be rebuilt. What struck me afresh, when I was in Dubrovnik a few weeks ago, is the incredible ability of human nature to emerge from such horrors and move on to a positive, brighter future. As for whether Miro and his family manage to make that transition? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
(I’m already working out how I can fit it in, Annabelle – thank you for joining me today.)
I’ve been a travel and features journalist for almost twenty years, writing mostly for the Times, Sunday Times Travel Mag, Express and Guardian. Ironically, I turned to journalism as a way to make some money while I wrote my first novel – this was in the mid 1990’s! Getting published was an incredibly long, slow process – The People We Were Before has been in the works for about ten years.
I split my time between London and Sussex, where I grew up, and am currently working on my second novel, Night Falls on the Kasbah, which is set in Marrakech and Doha, and should be published in May 2017.
The People We Were Before is out now, published by Quercus (£14.99). It’s also available on Kindle and audiobook.