REVIEW: Ruth Browne
The Hired Man is a story told simply, of a piece with the heat and the smell of sage in Gost, a town near the coast of Croatia. Duro Kolak is the narrator, distinguished by his quiet and restraint. He lives alone with his two hunting dogs and is as much a part of Gost as the trees and the sky. When an English family moves into the blue house on the outskirts of town, Duro helps to renovate their holiday home. In the process, Gost’s painful history of conflict and betrayal resurfaces.
Aminatta Forna is Scottish-Leonean, and seems the most unlikely author imaginable for Duro’s passive-aggressive rural Croatian masculinity. But her characters never lack credibility, and her own experiences run parallel to the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars of Duro’s past.
Her 2002 debut novel, The Devil that Danced on the Water, is a memoir dealing with the civil war in Sierra Leone, where Forna spent her childhood. The early nineties saw both the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the start of the devastating war in the west African state, and The Hired Man is in this sense almost a comparative history. In a Guardian interview with Maya Jaggi, Forna commented on how genocide is perceived depending on its context. Eastern European slaughters are sanitised through discussions of politically-motivated “ethnic cleansing”, while Africa is still seen as the dark continent where unreason prevails.
In the fictional town of Gost, it is understood that old crimes and hatreds linger in all communities where neighbours have turned on one another. The mechanics are different, from machetes in Sierra Leone to hunters’ rifles in Croatia, but the aftermath is the same: the scar of the past always distorting the present.
Laura and her two children are oblivious holidaymakers in Croatia, and in Duro’s account we, too, see and hear nothing but the tranquility, the countryside and the taciturn townspeople. Duro is a man of habit, and the gradual progression towards the truth is his way of remembering. The methodical business of laying new roof tiles, cutting down a dead tree or uncovering a startling mosaic mimics his own journey into the past, and a second, darker narrative becomes visible beneath his courteous interactions with the visiting family.
Forna is well-travelled, and holds a degree in law from London University. During her career as a BBC journalist, she witnessed and reported on international conflicts, grounding her latest work in ten years of experience. But she is also an author whose previous novel, The Memory of Love, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Forna is recognised both for her ability to excavate past conflict and trauma and for her particular literary talent.
Her style in The Hired Man is almost bland, beginning simply, with a timeless feel that plays on the town’s ethereal name. As the demons of the past are revealed, one discovers Duro’s complexity as a character, and the buried evils that moulded him and his whole community take shape against a meticulously researched historical backdrop.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2013