The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna – review

A theme of civil conflict and recent horror rings as true in a small Croatian town as it did in Sierra Leone

In 2007 Aminatta Forna gained the slightly double-edged accolade of being named by Vanity Fair as one of Africa's most promising new writers. The fact that she was born in Glasgow confounds easy categorisation; though the civil conflict of Sierra Leone, where she was partly brought up, provided the subject for an acclaimed memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and two novels, Ancestor Stones and The Memory of Love, which won the Commonwealth Writers' prize in 2011.

Forna's father, a physician who became Sierra Leone's finance minister, was killed by political opponents in 1975, when the writer was 10 years old. Though she has transmuted the trauma into compelling art, the constant redrafting of childhood experience might be subject to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a writer to whom Forna is frequently compared, has termed "the danger of a single story". As if to answer the charge, Forna's third novel marks a break from Africa: but though the scenery has altered, the roots of the work lie deep within familiar ground.

The Hired Man is set in Croatia, specifically the wooded, mountainous and largely undeveloped Lika region, which lies between Zagreb and the coast. It's an attractive spot, and the opening chapters have an optimistic, holiday tone. Laura, an Englishwoman in her 40s, has been looking for a foreign property to develop, and settles on a run-down farmhouse outside the small market town of Gost. She is attracted by the lack of tourists and by the uncultivated fields of wild flowers; but her teenage children become restless because of a lack of mobile phone coverage and internet, while the town itself proves to be a bit of a disappointment. "Laura wanted cheese and cured meats, olives soaked in oil and vine tomatoes, like in Italy. Instead she found imitation leather jackets, mobile-phone covers and pickled vegetables."

It puzzles her why there should be only a single bakery, and why the proprietor should be so rude. But at least one of the locals proves to be more hospitable, and speaks good English. Duro Kolak is an odd-job man who lives alone with his hunting dogs and a large collection of firearms – this being a part of the world where people "learn to hold a rifle at their mother's breast". But despite his solitary, taciturn nature, Duro soon becomes invaluable, helping to make the house inhabitable. When the remains of a mosaic of a golden-plumed bird are revealed beneath some plaster, the family make it their summer project to restore the image, though Duro, who takes the role of first-person narrator, confides: "I led Laura to the mosaic to divert her from doing the jobs she could be paying me to do."

The image turns out to be a relic of the fairly recent past; created by Duro's missing childhood sweetheart Anka, whose presence he can still perceive "in every detail of it, her joy". The restoration of the mosaic inevitably requires piecing together fragments of the region's troubled history. Gradually, it becomes apparent why the prettiest of the three churches (the Serbian Orthodox) is shut up, why good agricultural land is left as wild meadow, and why there is only a single baker in town. Duro recalls the day, 16 years previously, when the owners of the rival establishment abandoned their shop, leaving the bread to go stale on the shelves. "There was no explanation, just a faded notice asking for people to make their orders for the next day … Someone crossed out the word hleb and wrote kruh. Both words mean bread but some people use one and some the other. The ones who start leaving are the hlebs."

The precise extent of the ethnic cleansing carried out during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia may never be known; and to its credit, Forna's novel does not attempt an explanation or an argument for either side. But she has a terrific ability to evoke the poisonous atmosphere of culpability and denial from which civil conflicts emerge: "Grudges are reckoned. Greed grows. People denounce their neighbours to the new authorities with an eye on their chest freezers and televisions."

Forna brilliantly portrays the atmosphere of festering tension in which perpetrators of the most grotesque acts of violence continue to live side by side, the trauma of the recent past disregarded by an influx of moneyed incomers too ignorant to realise that the wildflower meadows remain untilled because of unexploded mines. It brings to mind a story recounted in Forna's memoir of a woman who returned to her village to find her daughter married to the man who had killed her husband, but had the fortitude to recognise that it is only "together under the same roof that a country can learn to live with the past".

The novel is a continuation of Forna's overriding theme; the gradual accretion of small, seemingly insignificant acts of betrayal that eventually find expression in full-scale horror. In that respect, she remains committed to a single story; though The Hired Man triumphantly proves that the story need not always remain the same.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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