Aminatta Forna has written two previous novels, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones both set in Sierra Leone where she was raised. She has also written an investigative memoir delving into the political events around the seizure and execution of her father on false charges of treason entitled The Devil that Danced on the Water that I plan to read.
After reading The Memory of Love last year and seeing her interviewed, it is clear she is a writer of courage and I knew I would be reading whatever she produced next.
Just as with The Memory of Love which is set in the aftermath of conflict of that disconcerting type where civilians mysteriously disappear and terrible unspoken things happen, in The Hired Man, we find ourselves following in the footsteps of 46-year-old Duro, an unmarried man living alone with his two dogs, his sisters and mother having already fled whatever horror occurred in their home town of Gost, a fictitious town caught between opposing sides in the former Yugoslavia.
“They have taken up a position south of the town opposite the army in the north. In between lies Gost. The army want to reach the coast but we stand in their way. Each side has roadblocks you have to pass through, on the road north and on the rods south out of Gost. Same questions, but different answers to each.”
For much of the early part of the book, we don’t know what has happened there, but Forna a somehow infuses the story with that sense of knowing yet not knowing, creating an underlying, slow building tension and unwillingness to trust any of the characters we come across. The events may be long in the past, but their memories feel as though they are not far from the surface and that anything could happen. And strange things do occur.
Into this undercurrent arrive an English woman Laura and her teenage son and daughter. Seemingly oblivious to the effect of their presence on the local villagers, they hire Duro and set about making improvements to the home they have purchased from with a view to doing it up and selling it on.
“I realised I’d upset the balance of thing. That I was a hired man and she was my employer made Laura relaxed in having me around the house. A mistake to take a day away without explanation: it made her feel she wasn’t the boss.”
We read the story through the eyes of the hired man Duro and interestingly Forna has chosen to narrate the story around Laura and her children in the past tense while Duro’s reflection on the past are written in the present even though they occurred many years before. It has that effect of making the past feel more present and could be how she succeeds in creating that tension, we read about the past as if it happened only recently.
“Vinca Pavic is an angry woman and her anger shows in the set of her teeth, the lines around her mouth into which her lipstick bleeds, the way she folds her arms. When she laughs it is to mock and in this she finds an ally in her son. But Anka, Anka was born with joy in her soul, to which they feel she has no right. Behind it all, as with so many things in life and in death, lies envy. In the end it gets the better of them.”
The Hired Man is a brilliant, quiet portrayal of the aftermath of conflict on a community, it goes some way towards explaining the meaning behind the silences, about why some can’t bear to stay and others can not bear to leave. It reminds us that nothing is forgotten and is a warning to outsiders to take care, that ignorance or indifference are sometimes deemed sufficient to warrant punishment.
Additional Reading: Aminatta Forna: A Life in Writing provides excellent background reading and context to the book.
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.