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'The Hired Man' of Aminatta Forna's novel is Duro, a 40-something man who lives alone with his two hunting dogs in Gost, a small (fictional) Croatian town somewhere between Zagreb and the sea. There he leads a quiet existence until the arrival at a dilapidated neighbouring house of an attractive Englishwoman, Laura, and her two children, Matthew a surly seventeen year old and Grace, a few years younger. Laura's workaholic husband, Conor, had bought the house unseen believing the area to be the next big thing as property prices on the coast increase. Neither Laura nor the kids find the place to be what they expected. Matthew is frustrated by the lack of internet access while "Laura wanted cheese and cured meats, olives soaked in oil and vine tomatoes, like in Italy. Instead she found imitation leather jackets, mobile-phone covers and pickled vegetables." Laura can't understand why a town this size has only one bakery and why the locals - Duro the only exception - aren't very friendly. Duro knows exactly why this is but doesn't tell Laura. Instead he encourages Grace in the restoration of a magnificent mosaic on the wall of the 'blue house'. The mosaic was created by Anka, Duro's childhood sweetheart, and as Grace slowly unveils the picture of the golden-plumed bird, so too the story of what happened in Gost is gradually revealed.
Writing about the ethnic cleansing that took place in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s Aminatta Forna refuses to take sides. The novel is as much a dig at the moneyed foreigners who buy abandoned houses for holiday homes as it is an expose of the horrors of a war in which people that previously lived side by side allowed themselves to be persuaded that they were suddenly enemies. Although small details - of the town's three churches only the Orthodox church is no longer used, the sign on the closed down bakers changed from 'hleb' to 'kruh' - hint at the community make up of this town, the words Croat or Croatian, Serb or Serbian are never used. This town is no different from many others in Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia though for this story it must be in Croatia for that is where many foreigners, expecting a now peaceful idyll, have invested their money in property, unaware that colourful meadows of wild flowers only look that way because the ground is still too full of landmines to return to agricultural use. 'The Hired Man', though, is not a story about the war, it shows what people have to do afterwards to cope with the memories of what went before, how we must learn to live with the past even if there can not be forgiveness.
Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow but her father, originally a physician, was the Minister of Finance in Sierra Leone and was murdered when Aminatta was ten years old. Previously she's written about Africa (and was named by Vanity Fair as one of the brightest young writing talents to come out of Africa), but an understanding of the tensions in communities that are culturally mixed, and those small acts that escalate into atrocities translates easily to the Yugoslav conflict. A couple of things struck me about Forna's writing: one was how she has captured so well the Croatian (although one might say Yugoslav) attitude and voice. It's a part of the world I know well and I recognised in Duro those language patterns and that attitude towards work and life that is quite typical of people of the region. Duro's reaction to Laura's plans for renovating the house made me smile; it's an attitude I've heard plenty of times myself as I make plans to renovate my little house in Slovenia. So too does Forna have a talent for creating strong male characters and giving them an authentic voice. In particular she picks up on the rivalry between men, how they size each other up and the non-verbal language they use to establish dominance. In contrast the female characters appear rather weak, Grace being the only exception, proving herself to be far less naïve than her mother.
Technically this is storytelling that's pretty close to perfect: Forna sets us up to anticipate a romance, makes us feel sorry for Duro, the single man unlucky in love who falls easily into the role of father in a ready made family and, just as we're rooting for him, his secrets start to unfold. Forna paints a picture of a charming cottage, of hot summer days, balmy nights, conjuring up the heady scent of wild rosemary, the colours of wild flowers and then just as we're enchanted by this picture of paradise, the history of the blue house is exposed. The narration is engaging though Duro has a tendency, I feel, to speak too much for the other characters outside of what is revealed in dialogue, and there's a discrepancy when Duro at one point tells the story as if the reader is an outsider and later refers to television programmes and hit songs that non-Yugoslav readers are unlikely to know, but speaking of them as if they would.
Aminatta Forna has found a new fan here and I'm sure to explore her earlier novels. As for 'The Hired Man' I found it sensitive, balanced and extremely generous yet at the same time dark and necessarily unsettling. I loved it so much I went back to the beginning and read it all over again.
304 pages in hardback (also available in Kindle edition)
This review first appeared at curiousbookfans.co.uk
Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.