Tuesday 26 April 2016

Reviewed: The People We Were Before by Annabelle Thorpe

TITLE: The People We Were Before
AUTHOR: Annabelle Thorpe

PUBLICATION DATE: April 21, 2016


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.

Wow – what a beautiful story.

The People We Were Before is Annabelle Thorpe’s debut novel and it is a stunning read, with powerfully observed emotions and storytelling that is both brutally honest and incredibly moving. It tells the story of Miro, right from childhood to adulthood, where his love and devotion to his family, to his wife and their young daughter, to his friends Tara, Pavle and Josip, is torn apart by the brutalities of war.

Miro’s character is one I connected with right from the beginning of this novel and though I cared for his character, you know there is no protecting him from the harsh realities of life and death to come in Yugoslavia in the late twentieth century. Early on, the close bond he shares with his older brother Goran is evident and I loved reading their relationship and seeing how much love they had for each other come shining through. However, in a time destroyed by so much war and segregation, the moment Goran deplores his brother for not paying attention to the papers, not paying attention to the “ethnic cleansing” that is happening all around them, shocks Miro and changes his life forever.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of this novel because Annabelle’s writing is so honest and authentic. The storyline is fast-moving and with that my emotions were up and down constantly, following the direction the narrative takes the reader in with vivid descriptions of the settings and events and bold detail of the war itself, pulling no punches with the harshness and severity of conflict.

This book is blessed with so many memorable characters, each one real and believable, with depth to their personalities making both them and their choices anything but obvious. They possessed real flaws and realistically nothing was easy for any of them and as a reader, you might not always believe that the characters are making the best of choices but you’re drawn in to the level that rooting for them is a must.

Though I found this book at times almost overwhelmingly emotional, it was an utterly compelling read throughout and every time I put it down, a few minutes later I’d realise I’d been thinking of nothing else but the story within the pages and I’d pick the book up again, finishing it over the course of a day. It was a truly fascinating novel and the quick pace contributed to how unputdownable the book was because there was never a lull in the writing – there was always something new happening to move you, anger you, sadden you or just fully engross you in a wonderfully told story.

One of the aspects that truly moved me when reading The People We Were Before is how each character, regardless of what front they put up, were somehow affected by guilt, regret, trauma, grief and loss all caused by horrific events they try so hard to forget. Miro gets his first experience of that as a child and it is something that shapes him as a person, something that defined his character and though things were only going to get worse for him, the event from his youth was something unforgettable that plagued him throughout the novel. As the reader discovers later on in the book, Miro is not the only character stricken by something from their past and I found it touching to see how each character coped, having to live with an overbearing, emotional event from the past.

The People We Were Before is a brave and beautiful novel and one that will stay with me. It has depth in its emotions and with this, Annabelle makes you believe in every word she has written and whether the dynamics are romantic, war-ridden or otherwise, you feel every single emotion for the characters and come the end I was just a wreck because I felt like as the reader, I’d gone through every single moment with these characters who were faced with living a life set in an horrendous time. It’s an extraordinarily powerful debut and I’m looking forward to more to come from the author.

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