The People We Were Before is published by Quercus and has been available in ebook format since April 2016 and is now available in paperback (23 February 2017). To celebrate the paperback publication, it’s a pleasure to welcome the author, Annabelle Thorpe to the blog with a guest post. I have this book sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read. I’ve visited Croatia several times and love it there – so I couldn’t resist buying this one!
It’s only fair to warn in advance that the post does contain a spoiler alert in the fourth paragraph for the film La La Land.
The Attraction of the Non-Happy Ending
by Annabelle Thorpe
Who doesn’t love a happy ending? It’s the most popular finish to a novel; the cutesy, cosy partner to ‘once upon a time’. Publishers and film-makers love a happy ending, because it sends the reader/audience member back out into the world with a glow of satisfaction, that kind of blissful blur you get from escapist fiction or films, when the world is temporarily revealed to be a just and fair place, where lovers always end up together, and bad people meet a sticky end.
But from a writers’ point of view, a happy ending is not always the easiest one to write – and not always the one you want for your characters, however much you love them. Happy endings are straightforward things, with all loose ends tied up and battles won. Life, sadly, is rarely quite so simple, and if you’re trying to create a world that bears any resemblance to reality, it’s unlikely everything will come right at the end.
The love story that runs through The People We Were Before, between Miro and his childhood sweetheart, Dina, is one that is far from straightforward. As with so many relationships, it is external factors that threaten their happiness; a sick child, the onset of war, enforced separation. All of these obstacles are actually what a writer needs to build the story; to engage readers and make them root for the couple, to want to read on and see whether they can survive all the pressures life throws at them.
The recent hit La La Land (spoiler alert) is the perfect example of a non-happy ending; even though both of the main protagonists have reached their goals career-wise, they are left with regrets and sorrows about the failure of their relationship. Is this a more satisfying end than if they had walked off into the sunset together? Perhaps not, but I’d argue that it is more moving; it involves us more, makes us reflect on our own lost loves, remember the sorrow we felt at losing them.
I wrestled for a long time with what happened to Miro and Dina in the end. What I wanted for them as a writer, was different to what I would have wanted for them if I was reading the book. In the end, I had to give them the ending that was best for them; that offered them the best chance of happiness in the long run. It’s an irony, as a writer, that even though you create the characters, the relationships they form and the worlds they inhabit, once those people are fully formed you have to bend to what they want, rather than what you want for them.
Perhaps the problem isn’t with happy or unhappy endings, rather that there has to be an ending at all. In life, if we are fortunate, we pick ourselves up after heartbreak and disappointment, and in time find a new, different happiness. A reader asked me a while ago, whether I had plans to revisit Miro and Dina, and see what had happened to them in the future. It was such a lovely thought, and made me realise that theirs hadn’t been a happy or a non-happy ending. It was simply the point where I had chosen to leave their story. Who knows what their future may hold?
About the book:
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.
A bold, dark, romantic debut set in war-torn 1990s Croatia, for fans of Victoria Hislop and Louis de Bernieres.
About the author:
Annabelle Thorpe has been a travel and features journalist for fifteen years, writing for national print and online media. She currently works as a freelance for the Times, Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Express, and works as a consultant for the National Trust. Annabelle completed an MA in Contemporary History in September 2012 and is an alumna of Curtis Brown Creative. She lives in Angmering, West Sussex.
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.