Debut novel from travel journalist Annabelle Thorpe

A lifetime's fascination with the former Yugoslavia lies behind the debut novel from travel journalist Annabelle Thorpe, who grew up in Littlehampton and now lives in Angmering.

Annabelle Thorpe
Annabelle Thorpe

Her debut The People We Were Before, published by Quercus, is set in war-torn 1990s Croatia looking at the effect war has on one young man and the people he loves.

“The response to the book has been fantastic, but what’s been really interesting is how many people have said they didn’t really know anything about the Balkan War or what happened in Croatia. I’ve had readers tell me they are genuinely shocked and that the book has given them an insight into historical events they didn’t even know happened. It’s been great to hear that, to know that it’s shed some light on a conflict that has kind of been brushed under the carpet.”

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Annabelle has travelled the world but Croatia remains her passion, having fallen in love with the place when she visited for the first time as a child 30 years ago. Her novel profiles the Croatian War of Independence, a tragic and much-overlooked part of European history.

“I went to Croatia or Yugoslavia as it was, when I was ten, just for a family holiday. My brother was a musician and was working out there. He was part of the house band in one of the hotels, and it was the first time I had ever been abroad. That makes a real impression on you, when it is the first time you have gone abroad, and we went back the following two or three years – and then we went back because we loved it so much. I then went back the year before the war broke out with my boyfriend. It was fascinating to talk to people. They were saying it was all happening in the north, but it was clear it was coming. This beautiful tourist place had these storm clouds gathering.”

Just a few years later, tourism was starting to come back: “But the first time I went back, 70 per cent of the buildings in old town Dubrovnik had had a direct hit. It was a mess. You could see the holes in the walls. But by the late 90s, it was all starting up again, and now it has just been a massive success.

“I have just got back from Dubrovnik, and the restoration has been astonishing. There are no pock marks. They have done an amazing job of restoring the old city. You would go into the countryside and before there were probably 70 to 80 per cent of the buildings damaged, but again, there has been a massive restoration. In Dubrovnik, there is a war photo museum that has a permanent exhibition of pictures during the siege, but it is fairly low key. They very much want to be seen as a city of the now. I also went to Sarajevo, and that’s a city that wears what happened much more obviously, while Dubrovnik wants to move on. Tourism is a massive part of their economy. People will talk about the war, but they talk about it very much as something that has passed.

“This is my first novel. I always set my writing abroad as a travel journalist, but also it feels natural. I started to write a novel set in Croatia, and I didn’t want to write about the war. It was too hideous. But then I realised I couldn’t not write about it. I couldn’t do a five-year leap and miss it. Instead, it became important to me to show what happened. For all that it is only a two-and-a-half-hour flight away, a lot of people here don’t understand what happened there.”

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