01 September 2013

The Hired Man

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna develops in the slow, haunting way of an urban gothic psychological thriller. There’s a sleepy, mysterious village with a dark secret, into which stumbles a cheery English family. The story is told, sometimes bleakly, sometimes wryly, by a brooding, Byronic hero with a shadowy history. The book sets a measured Hitchcock-style pace, never revealing too much, littering the setting with murky clues, swinging with delicate, practised ease from past to present. When the pieces fall into place, the conclusion offers no relief. It is cold, lurching, and vividly disturbing.

And yet, the premise is simple enough. Laura and her family come to Gost, a little hamlet in the Croatian countryside, in search of pastoral simplicity. Laura is here to restore an abandoned house that she has just bought, and has her two reluctant teenagers in tow. The local handyman, Duro Kolak, who is the book’s sad-eyed narrator, helps Laura through the process. And as he does, the small village’s troubled story unravels.

There are many, many metaphors for restoration and rehabilitation in Forna’s tale, some more obvious than others. An old mosaic is discovered and touched up, an old car is repaired, a house is mended. Each is a protracted process, a way of healing and returning. But if the analogies are painfully unambiguous, they are also unsettling. Fragments of the mosaic are pieced together just as scraps of memory and history interlock to reveal a troubled narrative. When the ruined plaster that obscures the mosaic is uncovered, it is simply painted over once again by local vandals, as if to say that the anguish of the past is best left concealed.

This is not an easy book to read. It is a harrowing story, not so much of forgiveness, but of painful forbearing, of how we learn to live with our enemies, the people who have caused us the most grievous harm, how we exist and work side-by-side with them because the new ways of the world favour forgetfulness of past sins. We see this every day in the communally charged affairs of our own country – men and women who live with their rapists and work with the murderers of their families – and all we long to do is forget and move on, brush their injustices away in favour of the pale edges of convenience.

The conflicts that shattered the former Yugoslavia into shards so broken that they may never be mended are described only briefly by Forna, whose precise and deliberate ways of creating atmosphere are chilling even as they leave much to the imagination. The lethal aftermath of civil and ethnic conflict is seen in the village of Gost, whose inhabitants are not young enough to have never experienced the betrayals of their land and neighbours and not old enough to have outlived the consequences of these many betrayals.

Laura arrives in Gost with the privileged innocence of the Western world, wanting to find fine cheese and idyllic charm. But Gost’s apparent rusticity is inscrutable in alarming ways: “Sixteen years ago we endured months of candlelight. When it was finally over and we could turn the lights on, some of us were already used to the dark but for others nothing less than one hundred watts would do. I’ve heard that over at the hotel the passing tourists complain about the lighting in their rooms, in the foyer, but most of all in the restaurant. They say it’s too bright, they want something called ambience. The tourists can’t understand and nobody wants to explain, so they lie and say that people here like to see their food.”

Forna’s writing has a layered, nuanced way of texturing the very lack of communication with deep-seated meaning. The collective pain of the villagers repeatedly manifests itself through their inhospitable response to outsiders and their unspoken resentment towards each other. The trauma of their past has been shoved under the carpet, but it is a sentient, breathing thing, waiting to resurface bitterly into Gost’s overwrought present day. And when it does, the village must call upon its every strength to contain its shuddering ferocity.

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