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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of "The Hired Man" by Aminatta Forna

Earlier today I listened to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Aminatta Forna on Writers and Company on CBC (  I have read her most recent book The Hired Man.  Here’s my review:

4 Stars

The novel begins in 2007 in the Croatian town of Gost. The narrator, Duro Kolak, is a middle-aged handyman who gets himself hired to help Laura, an Englishwoman, restore “the blue house” which she and her husband have purchased. Past and present unfold at the same time: Duro tells the story of the present (working on the restoration of the house and getting to know Laura and her teenaged children, Grace and Matthew), but he also flashes back to several time periods in the past: his childhood, his first love, his military experiences, his return to the village, etc. Gradually it becomes obvious that Gost is not the pastoral ideal it might seem to the undiscerning.

One of the strengths of the novel is the slow buildup in suspense. As Duro drops subtle hints about what lies hidden, the reader experiences curiosity and then unease because of a growing sense of something evil lurking. For example, how is it that Duro knows the blue house so well? Who created the mosaic which adorned the front of the house? Why was the mosaic plastered over? How did Duro’s father and sister come to die at the same time? Why is there such animosity between Duro and his childhood friend Kresimir around whom he feels “the chill of unfinished business”?

The blue house functions as a metaphor for the village and its mosaic functions as a symbol of the past which the villagers have tried to bury. Just as Grace exposes the mosaic from beneath a thin layer of plaster, Duro exposes the not-so-distant past of the village and its inhabitants. Grace removes the whitewash from the house’s façade and Duro works at removing the whitewash covering the past. It is noteworthy that though the façade of the house is repaired, there are still problems indoors, specifically a “patch of rotten plaster.”

The use of foil characters is very effective. Duro is very much aware of the town’s history and its secrets, whereas Laura is totally oblivious; when she is first introduced, Duro describes her assurance in speaking “to a stranger in a foreign land in her own tongue and [expecting] to be understood. Clearly she enjoyed the luck of the innocent.” Her outlook and that of Duro are clearly contrasted: “To Laura’s way of thinking the past is a place of happiness, of safety and order . . . the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be.” When fifteen-year-old Grace asks her mother about the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Laura naively tells her that nothing happened in Gost: “’Nowhere near here, darling. . . . It’s not even the same country any more. None of those sorts of things happened here . . . Anyway, it was for ever ago. You were only just born, it’s all long forgotten now.’”

Of course it is this civil conflict that is very much a part of Gost’s past. Interestingly, the author gives virtually no background information about this ethnic conflict; even the words “Serb” and “Croat” are never used. The novel examines how people had to survive the war and then survive living with the knowledge of what they and their neighbours did during that war. Duro speaks of events “of which I’d found a way to live with. I’d had no choice, none of us had, though some were better at it than others.” He feels that “somebody must stand guard over the past” so he rejoices when the house and the past are resurrected: “Something that had been neglected and left to wither was being restored.” He is not above using Laura and her family to recreate the past in order to send a message to his neighbours in Gost. He believes that people must not forget the truth about the past and must come to terms with it: “Probably you wonder how we all stand each other as I do sometimes, but the truth is we have no choice. In towns like this there is nothing to do but learn to live with each other.”

The novel is not flawless. Though Duro emerges as a multi-dimensional character and the portrayal of Laura’s two children is very realistic, Kresimir and Fabjan remain rather flat. Sometimes the cryptic nature of the conversations between Duro and his former friends becomes annoying. Also, the transitions between past and present are abrupt in some instances, although the discomposure felt by the reader is probably intended to reflect Duro’s.

Nonetheless, the strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses. Its examination of how people try to establish a sense of normalcy after finding themselves in the midst of an ethnic conflict may leave the reader feeling disconcerted, but that consequence speaks to the power of the novel.