Star rating - 8/10
The horrific decent into madness and terror in the former Yugoslavia which happened so recently is a thing of terrifying fascination. How such brutality and lack of humanity in the name of religion and ethnicity could set people against their neighbours so easily and permanently is beyond belief. But believe it, and understand it, we must, for sadly it is a situation which has occurred throughout the ages and will keep recurring unless we can learn from history. Aminatta Forna's excellent new novel The Hired Man, deals with just this period and place.
The story is set in a small Croatian town, Gost, which is slowly coming to terms with its haunting past, and learning to live what now passes for a normal life again. Into this uneasy peace comes middle class Englishwoman Laura with her two teenage children and husband too busy with work to join them for long, to renovate a house there as a holiday retreat. She enlists the help of local handyman Duro, who is also the narrator of the book. She seems carelessly and mystifyingly oblivious to the town's awful past however, and even tells her children that the war did not encroach on their new foreign idyll. And Duro chooses not to put her straight, preferring only to answer what questions he is directly asked, and keep his own counsel.
Their blue house is however familiar to Duro from times and connections which are painful for him to recall. As Laura's project unfolds over the space of a few weeks, the reader learns of this past history, and how it still hangs over the town. The writing is taut and well paced, keeping you wanting more of the past and present narrative. The device of Duro as the narrator is not unproblematic, as his command of the English language is not really good enough for the details he imparts. And the criss-crossing of time periods can get a tad confusing at times.
But Forna knows how to hook you in. Duro's uneasy relationships with the men he was formerly at war with are all pervading. And his solitude and loneliness are only temporarily diverted by Laura's list of tasks. It is her daughter Grace who has the sensitivity and empathy to delve a bit deeper and uncover what really went on there. This is a very well written and taut novel, and a pin point study in what makes normal human beings commit unspeakable atrocities. It was no surprise to me to learn that Forna has herself lived through terror and the execution of her father in Sierra Leone. She has put her personal tragedy to dazzling effect in this novel.