We chip away at the past

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna, Bloomsbury, £16.99, 304 pages

Aminatta Forna’s quietly gripping new book features a Croatian town called Gost, which turns out to be haunted by its history, and a narrator called Duro – a good Balkan moniker but also the Latin for “I endure”. Like the author’s previous novel, the Orange Prize-shortlisted The Memory of Love (2010), which was set in Sierra Leone, The Hired Man is about coming to terms with the aftermath of civil war. It’s also a depiction of the emotional calcification and denial that surviving conflict demands: another meaning of the word “duro” is “I harden”.

Forna’s narrator is a loner. When we first encounter him he is hunting outside the hunting season. From a hilltop by his house, he tracks a four-wheel-drive vehicle in his rifle’s telescopic sights as the car winds into town. The driver, we discover, is Laura, a middle-class Englishwoman whose husband has bought a ruined house as a holiday home. Accompanied by her awkward daughter, Grace, and inert son, Matthew, she plans to spend the summer of 2007 knocking “The Blue House” into shape. In the absence of Laura’s spouse, Duro becomes her hired man, friend and interpreter.

At first, there is a whiff of caricature about the clash of cultures the book sets up. Laura wades in with the wilful myopia of the Little Englander plundering the foreign property market for profit while convincing herself she is doing it for the locals. “It’s got to be a good thing. People investing in the country again, getting the economy moving?” she tells Duro, the hanging question mark suggesting an iota of doubt. When Laura expresses admiration for the fields of wild flowers around the town, he doesn’t tell her that they are there because the land is full of mines and cannot be farmed. “I guessed that Laura was one of those people who preferred the music of a lie to the discordance of truth,” Duro observes, surprisingly eloquently for a rural handyman.

Still, the truth will finally out, to the reader if not to Laura. One of the novel’s satisfactions is watching Gost come into focus, all the more sinister for its Swiss-style “immaculate houses with their wooden balconies, window boxes full of geraniums and dark, gleaming windows”.

Why does the town only have one bakery? Why is the Orthodox church shuttered? The fact that we can guess the reason doesn’t make the act of revelation less unsettling. (The story may have been inspired by events in 1991 in the town of Gospic, on the frontline between Serb and Croat forces, though Forna never makes this explicit.)

Gradually the web of unease begins to centre on two figures, a flashy bar owner, Fabjan, and embittered Kresimir, Duro’s estranged friend and brother of his childhood sweetheart, Anka. Duro’s matter-of-fact narration adds to the unease, defying the reader to separate benign local colour from hints about unspeakable acts.

The novel’s opening paragraph – “At the time of writing I am forty-six years old. My name is Duro Kolak” – suggests a confession. If so, it’s a reluctant one. Duro’s circling of the story’s central horrors is more than simply a narrative device; it hints at a life in which the ability to compartmentalise emotions has become the only way to keep going. The voice that Forna grants her narrator skilfully conveys this sense of a mind struggling with its own contradictions. Duro is yearning one moment, deflecting emotion the next. Occasional lyrical flourishes only serve to set his huntsman’s masculinity in greater relief.

Over the summer, the English visitors become almost a second family for the hired man. He teaches Matthew to shoot and helps Grace restore the mural of a bird which they discover, hidden by a layer of plaster, at The Blue House. Meanwhile his friendship with Laura simmers on the verge of infatuation, a crush complicated by her resemblance to Anka. But it’s alone in the woods, with his dogs and his shotgun, that Duro seems to be most himself.

The forest provides The Hired Man’s most striking imagery, from wolves snapping at the weakest in the pack, to the wild boar, once almost extinct but thriving since their hunters were driven away by war. At times, the book – or at least its narrator – seems resigned to war as part of the natural order, a cycle of savagery that will endure as long as humanity exists.

A more optimistic counterpoint is found in the mosaic, a symbol of civilisation eradicated but painstakingly restored. In The Hired Man, optimism wins in the end, just. But there are no easy reconciliations. In the final paragraph, Duro addresses the reader: “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.” Endurance is everything.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.