Book review: The Hired Man - Aminatta Forna

Forna's brilliant observational skills masterfully develop her characters. Picture: Graham Jepson
Forna's brilliant observational skills masterfully develop her characters. Picture: Graham Jepson
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AMINATTA Forna’s third novel shares a certain slow-burning mystique with its eponymous handyman narrator: likeable and benign to begin with, it gradually reveals its deeper, darker and more unsettling characteristics.

The Hired Man - Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Duro, a lifelong resident of the small Croatian town of Gost, has never married or had children; his nurturing goes on his beloved dogs, Kos and Zeka.

When an alluring Englishwoman, Laura, and her adolescent children Matthew and Grace take up a local property as a summer holiday home, Duro offers practical assistance; and, with Laura’s husband predominantly absent, privately succumbs a little to the fantasy of a ready made family. With Laura, he builds a delicate relationship that flutters between friendship, flirtation and functionality; to sullen, selfish Matthew he extends some much-needed paternal discipline; and with shy Grace he commences a project of uncovering a beautiful mosaic that adorns the house and has – inexplicably to the outsiders – long been covered up.

The exposing of this image from the past, however, is strongly indicative of the emergence of other buried undercurrents, of which Duro and the other townspeople are only too aware, but Laura remains innocent. In not telling Laura the history of her house, Duro both protects her and punishes her for her naivety. She’s in Croatia: fashionable middle-class getaway it might be now, but does she really imagine that the conflicts that marked the dissolution of Yugoslavia over the 1990s have simply vanished away, taking their ghosts and scars with them? Gost, it transpires, is replete with both.

The name of the town means “guest” or “visitor”, and hospitality is supposed to be sacrosanct there; but visitors have brought rather more in the past than cultural enrichment and economic benefits, and so the appearance of Laura and her family, ostensibly positive though it may be for the town, stirs some very strong feelings.

Forna skilfully maintains and manages Duro’s secrets, before – just when you care enough to be devastated – letting them struggle to the surface and reveal themselves. She crafts a story that initially seduces with intense and vivid physical detail, low, sour wit and a suggestion of romance, before twisting – without the reader even fully registering – it into a knotty, powerfully ambiguous allegory for collective trauma and negotiation with historical pain. Yet The Hired Man also operates as a whodunit and a thriller. Forna has done some serious homework to render Duro’s past experiences authentic (her notes credit a representative of the UK National Rifle Association for teaching her “about guns and how to shoot them”), and for all its poignancy and political seriousness, her book also lends a salty, Hemingway-esque enjoyment to its evocations of deadly adventure.

This is not just compelling, but clever: by involving us in Duro’s memories of his heartpounding escapades, Forna gives us to understand something of his guilty attachment to risk and subterfuge, and thus of the element of romance that dwelt within the horror that the townspeople experienced – the daily life-or-death intensity and significance that must now be inadequately replaced by drinking and harsh gossip. Haunted as they are by times in which friends betrayed friends, certainties shattered and survival hung perpetually in the balance, the arrival of well-off outsiders with house renovation plans and the vaguest sense of history can hardly pass off without incident.

It’s a sharp, pertinent, absorbing story told by a writer of extreme gifts – one who disappears into her narrative and her characters, and who makes every nuance of surface communication and behaviour revealing of deeper truths. Forna is brilliant on male competition and unspoken resentments; brilliant on the passive-aggressive communication techniques of teenagers and married people; brilliant on awkward sexual undercurrents in platonic friendships; brilliant on dogs. All of this felt emotional detail builds toward the revelation of Gost’s history and Duro’s personal role therein effectively enough that when it comes, it’s neither melodramatic nor unconvincingly mythic, but real and immediate.

Forna’s novel comments on the supposed brevity of collective memory – the assumption on the part of the overweening political and economic system that inconvenient human skirmishes will be swiftly forgotten to make way for progress, and the real-world incompatibility of that assumption with the way that people and communities actually function. But it also observes – in a manner wide-eyed rather than critical – the capacity of individuals to live pressed up against the signs and sources of their past trauma, and to somehow make the best of it. Laura and her family, meanwhile – tourists, colonisers of a scarred state, bringers of Sunday supplement lifestyle fantasies to a one-time war zone – are critiqued, but not quite demonised: how else, after all, will places like Gost or people like Duro move on?

Sometimes the novel’s narrative levels are a bit too various. Duro on occasion addresses the reader as if they are Croatian – calling on them to recall a popular childhood TV show – even though elsewhere the clearly meant to occupy Laura’s position as an English-speaking outsider. But Forna is to be forgiven for overreaching a touch, in a book otherwise so generous, so involving and so rich with meaning. «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill