Book review: The Hired Man

By David Hill

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Writer Aminatta Forna.
Writer Aminatta Forna.

Aminatta Forna's previous books are much concerned with civil war and the ways it warps conventional morality. They've been set in the Africa of her childhood, but this cool, cleaving novel takes place in contemporary Croatia.

It's narrated by a middle-aged survivor of no fixed intent, who begins a relationship with a visiting Englishwoman and her two teenage children.

Duro lives in a poster-pretty village: avenues of chestnuts; window boxes with geraniums; gardens full of roses. But he knows that the wildflowers over which Laura exclaims are the fruit of abandoned fields, an empty baker's shop ("the people went away") is a record of ethnic cleansing; a waitress' smile belies a history of bloodshed and revenge; the natural predators in nearby woods seem merciful beside those who recently prowled local streets.

He's courteous, thoughtful, perceptive, lethal, ready at any moment to revert to the hunter he once was. Compared to him, the English visitors are milky, "enjoying the luck of the innocent".

To them, the past which emerges in concealed mosaics, hidden wells, and the Blue House where they stay, is picturesque and charming.

To Duro and others in his village, that past is a darkness to be shunned. He watches his visitors with increasing attachment and despair: anxious mother, awkward daughter, archetypally sulky son.

A plot of secrets and revelations on multiple levels grows: there's a golden bird; an apparently idyllic swimming hole; black-robed jurors on television; the cars that drive the no-exit road past the Blue House.

For Duro, Laura opens a tunnel into the past. Betrayals begin to intrude, some minor and some murderous. The specifics of the war in the 1990s appear: hunger, denunciation and disappearance, boredom, the casual killings via sniper and shell, the turning of neighbour into nemesis. Even those who survive are casualties.

The eventual peace is exhausted compromise rather than reconciliation. Former enemies may drink in the same cafe, but the enmity remains. Gradually, though, Duro moves towards acknowledgment and atonement.

Forna's narrative is notable for its subdued, meticulous renderings of domestic settings and rhythms, which make the sense of imminent menace and the eventual atrocities even more shocking.

Acceptance and denial are talked out in meticulous detail, which does make the middle chapters dense and even opaque on occasions. But the moral and visceral force of the ending makes up for it all.

A measured, inexorable examination of people living their quiet, horrified lives. Feel very, very lucky.

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury $36.99)

- NZ Herald

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