he Hired Man by Aminatta Forna develops in the slow, haunting way of an urban gothic psychological thriller. There's a sleepy, mysterious village with a dark secret, into which stumbles a cheery English family. The story is told, sometimes bleakly, sometimes wryly, by a brooding, Byronic hero with a shadowy history. The book sets a measured Hitchcock-style pace, never revealing too much, littering the setting with murky clues, swinging with delicate, practised ease from past to present. When the pieces fall into place, the conclusion offers no relief. It is cold, lurching, and vividly disturbing.
And yet, the premise is simple enough. Laura and her family come to Gost, a little hamlet in the Croatian countryside, in search of pastoral simplicity. Laura is here to restore an abandoned house that she has just bought, and has her two reluctant teenagers in tow. The local handyman, Duro Kolak, who is the book's sad-eyed narrator, helps Laura through the process. And as he does, the small village's troubled story unravels.
There are many, many metaphors for restoration and rehabilitation in Forna's tale, some more obvious than others. An old mosaic is discovered and touched up, an old car is repaired, a house is mended. Each is a protracted process, a way of healing and returning. But if the analogies are painfully unambiguous, they are also unsettling. Fragments of the mosaic are pieced together just as scraps of memory and history interlock to reveal a troubled narrative. When the ruined plaster that obscures the mosaic is uncovered, it is simply painted over once again by local vandals, as if to say that the anguish of the past is best left concealed.
The conflicts that shattered the former Yugoslavia into shards so broken that they may never be mended are described only briefly by Forna, whose precise and deliberate ways of creating atmosphere are chilling even as they leave much to the imagination.
This is not an easy book to read. It is a harrowing story, not so much of forgiveness, but of painful forbearing, of how we learn to live with our enemies, the people who have caused us the most grievous harm, how we exist and work side-by-side with them because the new ways of the world favour forgetfulness of past sins. We see this every day in the communally charged affairs of our own country – men and women who live with their rapists and work with the murderers of their families – and all we long to do is forget and move on, brush their injustices away in favour of the pale edges of convenience.