Book review: The Hired Man by Aminetta Forna

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I think it was in Italy that someone started a movement promoting “slow food” as an alternative to fast food outlets, indeed as a reproof also of the lack of respect for the idea of meals taken sitting around a table.

The Hired Man by Aminetta Forna

Bloomsbury, 293pp, £16.99

Likewise there is a place for what one might call slow fiction, for the novel which cannot be gobbled up, which demands and deserves close reading. The Hired Man is such a book.

It begins in a leisurely fashion. The narrator, the hired man of the title, is Duro, middle-aged, living alone but for his two hunting dogs in the countryside outside the town of Gost in an unnamed province of the former Yugoslavia.

The country is at peace now, the savage civil wars tucked away in the memory, better not spoken of; the people who have survived must somehow or other accommodate themselves to living together. Yet the memories are bitter. Terrible things were done, terrible unavenged crimes committed. Horrors lurk in the background and Duro himself has come upon bodies in unmarked graves.

None of this is evident at first. Things are apparently back to normal. The tourist industry is recovering. From the hillside where he is hunting with his dogs (though it is not the hunting season) Duro sees a car with British number plates arrive at “the blue house”, which has long stood empty (immediately you wonder why). A woman, Laura, is there with her teenage children, Matthew and Grace. It seems her husband has bought the house, having seen it advertised on the internet. The husband is expected to join them later. Meanwhile Duro, who speaks English, offers to work on the house, doing necessary repairs. Friendship develops, slowly and charmingly. The daughter Grace discovers a mosaic, and with Duro’s help starts to clean and restore it.

Even in the early chapters of the novel, the reader is made aware of disturbing undercurrents. There are two prominent citizens of Gost, Kesemir and Fabjan, whom Duro meets in the café. What is not said between them is more important than the words which are spoken.

They were friends of his childhood and youth, part of a group; most of the other members of that group are no longer about. Perhap they are dead. Perhaps they have merely gone away, as Duro’s mother and sister and the sister’s husband have. But Kesemir and Fabjan are no longer his friends. Things have happened which have destroyed friendship, and replaced it by dislike, hatred and fear.

The narrative moves slowly and inexorably from sunlight into shade. Aminetta Forna brilliantly evokes changes in moods. Everything is seen from Duro’s point of view; yet we are sure he is not deceived in believing that a friendship, based on trust, is developing between him and the English family.

Yet, though there is trust, there is also, necessarily on his part, reticence. There are things he cannot speak of, things he must keep hidden. A crust of normality is forming, but if the crust is broken, what lies underneath is terrible knowledge, even more terrible suspicion. It is all the more terrible because on the surface there is beauty and tenderness as some sort of ordinary life is restored. Duro repairs the blue house and makes it live again; can he repair the damage wrought in his own life by past events – a past which will not leave go of him.

He has seen murder committed. “People,” he has discovered, “who find themselves about to be killed, for no real reason, must wonder how it came to this, when they have hurt nobody, have done nothing to deserve it.”

Some have gone away in the hope of forgetting, putting the past behind them, starting a new life. Duro remains. When at last he speaks of what he has lived through, what he has seen, and what he has known, he says he prefers to remember. He likes to make sure that those who have reason to believe that they have got away with their crimes and made a successful life for themselves, are not allowed to forget what they have done.

All the same, “in towns like this there is nothing to do but learn to live with each other.” Normality requires that you do nothing about what has been done, pretend that bygones are bygones. Humankind cannot bear too much reality.

What is remarkable is that Aminetta Forna contrives, in this beautifully-written and intelligent novel, to make this necessary conclusion strangely disturbing.