As I wrote in my review of Aminatta Forna’s previous novel, The Memory of Love (2010), it’s difficult to write convincingly about love during a time of war—or, more accurately, the memory of that love after the carnage has ended. Forna certainly knows about such horrors. Her father was murdered during the civil war in Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her time as a child. The war became the backdrop to The Memory of Love, a brilliant novel that must have been every bit as wrenching to write as it is to read. And again, as if war has become a subject she cannot escape, her newest novel, The Hired Man, explores many of the same themes of the earlier work though the setting this time is during and after the Yugoslav civil war. Specifically, she narrates incidents sixteen years later in a town called Gost, which ironically means “guest,” though I certainly wouldn’t call the place very welcoming.
It takes many pages before we encounter actual events set during that the war, though we known from the main character, a man named Duro, a handyman, that Gost’s past put almost everyone in a bad light. Eventually, he will tell us, “We were petty thieves, smugglers and black-marketeers. We kept illicit stills, we hunted out of season because we could. We hated to pay tax, we did deals on the side and took cash whenever we could; we were the kind of people governments don’t like: bullet-headed, obstinate, as hard to control as it is to herd cats. It turned out we were the sort of people who would steal from the homes of those who had fled, which we did, without shame.”
I wouldn’t put Duro in that category. He’s an honorable man, who fled the village’s meanness and mendacity years ago after a brief love affair with a girl he obviously loved. But she was under age and others could not tolerate what had happened after matters of ethnicity and religion entered the fray. But by the worst part of the civil war, Duro has returned to Gost, doing his best to defend the village, though that meant his own share of killing. Observing his father and his sister being shot—his father dying immediately and his sister shaking for several hours before her end—he puts what has happened into the past the only way he knows in order that he can survive: “Daniela took five hours to go, her whole body shook in one death rattle. The expression on her face was as if she had done something wrong, like an animal caught in a trap, crying without making any sound. I could tell you I think about all of that, but I don’t. I think about the sun and the dawn which is almost over.” But then, he too, kills, wondering why he has waited so long.
You would think that Duro might leave Gost a second time, get away from the environment where so many things went wrong for him. But—and here is where the story gets complex—he stays, mostly as a living reminder to those who did truly vile things during the massacres, in order to keep them worrying that some day their crimes will be exposed. That almost happens because one summer (and this is how the novel begins) an English woman and her two teenage children arrive in Gost. They’ve bought “the blue house,” near his own, and intend to renovate it. As it happens, he’s got the skills that are necessary to make the repairs and Laura, the woman, hires him on the spot. Besides, with so little work around, Duro needs the job.
Over a period of slightly more than a month as he makes the renovations for the woman, he begins telling us about things that happened to him in the past and that means, of course, what happened in Gost. “Our story doesn’t show us in a very good light,” pops out fairly early during his remarks. As the renovations take place, someone in the community starts undermining his work, damaging things that have already been fixed up. These acts are obviously unsettling for Laura and her children, but Duro doesn’t want them to be frightened, although maybe they should be. Moreover, the details of his relationship with Anka are revealed, and it’s obvious that Duro has never been able to forget about their love.
In a final crescendo close to the time when Laura and her children are set to return to England, the worst of those details are revealed, some of them described by Duro to Grace, Laura’s daughter, because she’s the realist of the three of them, perhaps most likely to understand. As readers we begin to understand more fully the ethnic strife that he had previously only spoken to himself—a reiteration of the first quotation above: “Yes, we are petty thieves, smugglers, black-marketeers, we are makers of moonshine and tax dodgers, we fiddle the books of our businesses and peddle porn, and when our neighbors’ houses are empty we steal from them. One thing we are not is killers.” So it’s also catharsis for Duro, because he’s held those details too close for sixteen years, lied to himself.
If The Hired Hand lacks some of the emotional power of The Memory of Love, this is only because of the distance of the material. The earlier novel gave the impression of being pulled from Forna’s gut; the most recent one, though thoroughly researched, often seems distanced in its plotting (its revelation of information) holding facts back a little too long before revealing the horror. Still, Forna has walked the walk, lived close to the darkness she reveals–darkness in situations that call for truth rather than another layer of dust and disguise.
Aminatta Forna: The Hired Man
Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.