Duro Kolak is 46-years old. He lives a quiet, solitary life in Gost, a beautiful, isolated town in Croatia. His two dogs, Kos and Zeka, accompany him on his rambles through the fields and woods, looking for game for his supper. He occasionally ventures into town to buy bread, or to have a drink at the Zodijak, where he seems to sit at a remove from old friends and neighbors. His is a watchful, quiet, solitary life.
As Aminatta Forna's latest novel The Hired Man
opens, Duro's hunting is interrupted when he sees a strange car, four-wheel drive, slowly turn down an empty road. He later walks to a blue house, "A row of trees grew on the verge in front; over the years I'd watched three of them reach and exceed the height of the roof, the fourth had died some years back. Nobody to cut it down and so it remained standing next to its living companions, branches like bleached bones. The overhang of the roof cast a deep shadow in the walls of the house, stains flowed from the windowsills down the whitewash, buddleia sprouted from a high gutter: a slow slip into decay. Nobody had a reason to go there, not even children for whom there was not shortage of empty houses to play in and anyway this one was too far away, beyond the boundaries of the town."
The four-wheel drive is parked haphazardly on the driveway, and sounds of voices speaking English reach Duro.
With these scenes, Forna sets the stage for the encounter between Duro and an English family who bought the blue house: Laura, the mother, Grace, her 15-year old daughter, and her older son, Matthew. (Laura's husband plans to join the family later.) Duro answers some questions for Laura about Gost, and about the blue house (where to get water, how to handle fixing the roof), and is hired to help Laura to prepare the house to be sold or rented as a vacation property.
The blue house itself becomes a symbol for a past that is buried, but just under the surface, within reach, in Gost. Specters of the violence of civil war surround Gost. The countryside is beautiful, but mines remain buried in golden fields. Houses are deserted. A bakery remains empty. As Duro, Laura, Grace and Matt work to restore the blue house to its previous state, not only fixing roofs and walls, but also excavating and restoring a mosaic and a fountain, Duro very slowly reveals more about Gost's past, and his past, first matter of fact details about the town itself and stories about Duro's childhood, long since past. Later, his reminiscences become more detailed and pointed, more stark. The past subsumes the present.
Forna does a commendable job revealing Duro's past life. His retelling events around his relationship with Laura and her children is in past tense, while his recollections of a long-ago past are in present tense, showing how vital and alive those memories are compared to a haunted post-war existence. As the novel continues, the balance between past and present shifts, reminiscences become longer and more detailed. Duro and the town of Gost emerge as damaged by the past, unable and, perhaps, unwilling to move beyond a violent past of loss and conflict. The Hired Man
explores the high costs of civil war, the power of history's ghosts, and the costs of one man's attempts to hold individuals accountable for a violent past. Forna writes beautifully and powerfully, with passages that reveal the beauty of the countryside as well as the skeletons buried in shallow graves. This is not a perfect novel -- Grace comes across as far too wise for her 15 years, and Laura seems almost unbelievably unaware of the violent history of this part of the world. These faults are minor, though, compared to the beauty and sadness of the story, the power of Forna's writing, and the importance of her themes. Highly recommended.