BOOK REVIEW: When an English family moves into a sleepy Croatian town, wartime secrets are unearthed and memories of dark crimes reawakened in a novel that is both deeply affecting and suspenseful.
Aminatta Forna’s literary oeuvre explores past conflict and present hurt. Her first work, “The Devil That Danced on the Water” (2003), was a memoir about her dissident father who fought against corruption and tyranny in his native Sierra Leone. For her Commonwealth Writer’s Prize-winning novel, “The Memory of Love” (2010), she returned to Sierra Leone and wove a love story in and around the twin horrors of civil war and the scars left on its survivors.
“The Hired Man” (Grove Atlantic, 293 pages, $24), Forna’s latest novel, takes us out of Africa and into Croatia. Yugoslavia has fragmented, but recollections of its rupture remain ingrained in its people — not least in the Croatian town of Gost. Our narrator is Duro Kolak, a handyman and born-and-bred resident of the place. When Laura, an English woman, and her two children roll into Gost and move into one of its rundown houses, Duro offers his services and soon begins work on renovating the property and transforming it into their desired summer cottage.
However, not everyone in the community is comfortable with the arrival of these outsiders: Shifty entrepreneur Fabjan drunkenly trespasses; Duro’s taciturn “old adversary” Krešimir takes umbrage at his nemesis’ blossoming friendship with the family; locals exchange gossip. Slowly and stealthily, Duro reveals that Laura’s home — the blue house — has had significant previous owners and harbors many a dark secret from a terrible recent past.
This is a stunning novel, beautifully executed and cleverly crafted. Flashbacks to Duro’s sunny youth with childhood sweetheart Anka — swimming, hunting, sleeping in the woods — and to his later years spent ferrying tourists to and from idyllic islands are gorgeously evocative, yet all the time tinged with foreboding. When Duro revisits a coastal town with Laura, his enjoyment of her company is tainted by the worry he may bump into someone from his past — someone who could be “the same or changed: missing an arm, a leg, or maybe just some part of their soul.” Duro as builder constructs and helps restore a wall mosaic, while as narrator he strips away layer upon layer and supplies fresh shards of detail — gradually exposing a shocking tableau involving mass murder, betrayals, guilt and complicity.
The bulk of the novel is a balanced and nuanced melding of confession and suppression, narrated facts and withheld truths. Unspoken declarations of love create the same undertow of tension and disquiet as the unknown destination of neighbors rounded up and taken away in a gray van; Duro’s games of psychological warfare are as gripping as visceral accounts of a brutal siege. When at the end Forna allows the past to flood in, we witness a tougher, even more heroic Duro and realize how aptly named Gost is. It might mean “guest” in Croatian, but for a town that many have fled and with a history that haunts those who remain and survive, its other, more sinister inference is unmistakable.
Not every novelist is capable of producing limpid prose that has at the same time murky, hidden depths, but once again Aminatta Forna manages it masterfully. “The Hired Man” is a taut, unsettling but also intensely moving portrait of humanity at its most flawed.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.