Ditchling author Annabelle Thorpe on her novel ‘What Lies Within’

Annabelle Thorpe (Photo by Ian Allenden)

Annabelle Thorpe (Photo by Ian Allenden) - Credit: Ian Allenden

Ditchling-based Annabelle Thorpe has used her background as a travel journalist to great effect in her intriguing ‘holiday noir’, What Lies Within

Five years since Brighton novelist Julia Crouch coined the term ‘domestic noir’, another Sussex writer is staking her claim to a hitherto-unplumbed area of mystery: the holiday noir. Annabelle Thorpe, who recently returned to live in Sussex after years in London, has set her second novel, What Lies Within, in the ex-pat community of Marrakech.

Annabelle is a travel journalist who feels that her job allows her to “peek behind the curtain” of famous destinations, gaining an insight denied to those of us who go to spend a starry-eyed weekend. “There’s a version that most people see when they go on holiday and there’s a version you see if you’re in the industry – you get to look around the backs of hotels, talk to the tourism officials about what they’re worried about, and talk to locals about how they feel about the new big hotel and whether they are getting jobs from it. I want to write about places as they really are,” she says.

What Lies Within explores the bonds between three university friends, two of whom have since married and who go to live in Marrakech at the invitation of their wealthy Qatari friend, Hamad. The city is presented as both prison and paradise, as the couple’s differing reactions to their new life threaten to pull them apart. “I love Marrakech,” says Annabelle. “But I can see it’s really chaotic, dirty and quite overwhelming.”

She first visited the city for an assignment about 13 years ago. “I hadn’t been anywhere quite like it before and I just found it absolutely overwhelming, like I had stepped into some other world or onto a film set. It was the energy and the differentness – and I still think it’s the most different place you can get to in the shortest time. It has changed quite a lot since I first went there and it’s got a lot more touristy but I still find it extraordinary. It’s the sort of place you can never truly know unless you’re Moroccan.”

If the hectic activity of the medina and the sweltering landscape contribute to the slightly suffocating feel of the novel, so too does the incestuous, insular social scene that Brits Freya and Paul are expected to join. “There are a lot of ex-pats [in Marrakech],” says Annabelle. “A lot of French, a lot of English people who bought these townhouses when they were really cheap. I find ex-pat lives and communities really interesting. There is a feeling you have when you’re on holiday of being a slightly different version of yourself and I feel that ex-pat communities tend to live like that, so they’re apart from the country that they’ve come to live in.

“I wanted to explore that sense of almost losing yourself because all the things that you have at home, who you are as a person and all the people that maintain your sense of yourself as that person… without all that, how do you keep hold of yourself when something goes wrong, and when the people you love are revealed to be completely different to what you thought they were?”

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This is the dilemma faced by Freya, our protagonist. She shares the novel’s perspective with her husband Paul and their old friend Hamad, a member of the Qatari elite whose generous offer of employment and a new life brings them to Marrakech. While the novel spends most time with Freya and it is her arc that forms the centre of the story, Annabelle says she actually finds it difficult to write women. But she did relish writing the character of Dame Edith, Hamad’s intrepid grandmother whose biography Freya is employed to write. An ageing adventurer and writer, she is very much in the mould of other notable female travellers – such as Freya Stark, a famous explorer of the Middle East who inspired the main character’s name, and Gertrude Bell, who mapped Iraq. Annabelle says: “I wanted a character that embodied that spirit and I also wanted to capture that sense that if she was a man she would be remembered and people would know who she was.”

Annabelle thinks she is at her best when travelling alone: “I’m at my most resourceful, charming and confident because you have to find resources within yourself that you just don’t draw on normally.” But she found herself embarking on a quite different journey when she published her first book, a sweeping story of a Croatian family called The People We Were Before. She now has plans for further novels but feels it is important to take stock of the reaction to What Lies Within first. There are many more locations she would like to explore in literature – including Turkey, where she lived years ago, and Oman, but might she venture closer to home?

“Possibly,” she says. “I am learning that there is quite a lot of material in Ditchling!”


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