Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Hired Man - Aminatta Forna (Croatia)

Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The Croatian winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived.

A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.

I was surprised to find that the latest of Aminatta's books was set in Croatia, as her previous works, like the author herself, were African themed, and some say, partly autobioghraphical in nature. This then is an interesting departure from her more usual style, and yet it was also the same in that it was set in the aftermath of war, this time in the Balkans.

The narrator is builder Duro, who lives alone on the outskirts of Gost with his two hunting dogs. Gost seems an appropriate name in many ways for this fictional town, as it is one letter removed from ghost, the state in which many of the residents appear to reside. Duro first encounters Laura through the sight of his gun, while out hunting in the woods. When Duro a handyman by trade, learns that Laura has recently moved into the so-called blue house, and plans to renovate it, he volunteers his services, being in need of the work. As the story unfolds, we learn that Duro is already intimately acquainted with both the house and its history, as the former home of his childhood sweetheart and sister of his once best friend.

There are dark under currents beneath the surface as we learn the secrets of both Duro's and the towns past with its role in the ethnic cleansing that took part of the Balkans war. The war has understandably left scars, both physical and psychological upon the inhabitants, not least of all Duro himself. The book cleverlly addresses many of these issues and for many will I am sure leave unanswered and unresolved questions.

The relationships between the various characters are brilliantly betrayed - Laura and her sunny, trusting personality, Kresimir's brutality and Fabjan's hypocrisy. As I said, this book covers many themes. Most of all though, it is a book about survival and the effects of war on a community, a community where the various occupants took sides against each other and are now forced to live with the consequences of that betrayal and guilt.

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