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.
Review from Aval:
I recently spent two years living and working in Croatia and I struggled to understand the social tensions and secrets in the community around me – sensing the conspiracy of silence in the presence of outsiders, of things unsaid – a hidden but unspoken history hinted at by the abandoned chuches, empty houses and smashed memorials, conversations left unfinished. I left Croatia feeling deeply frustrated by my inability, with a few notable exceptions, to penetrate the truth of the war and the fall out from the 90’s conflict. What part did my neighbours and colleagues play at the time, and how can the modern community live with these events?
What makes Aminitta Forna’s novel so remarkable is that she articulates the dark, unsavoury forces that used religion, patriotism and ethnicity as their justification for atrocities that tore the community apart, and the unspoken collusion of all sides to maintain the secrets into the present day as the perpetrators and their victims still live side by side. This is fiction at its best, an engrossing narrative but also deeply insightful. This is a novel that challenges the “Year in Provence” cliché of wealthy house-buying northern Europeans meeting poor eccentric locals under the bucolic warmth of the Mediterranean sun. Aminitta Forna cleverly subverts this “summer reading” form to force us to ask questions about the fragility of modern European society and human nature itself. Through the relationship between the naive English newcomers and their hired handyman, the central character of the novel. old wounds are unwittingly opened and the community is forced to confront itself in a narrative that draws the reader deeper and deeper in at an inexorable pace. For the Krajina region of Croatia read also Northern Ireland, Rwanda and many other conflict zones. A dark book, but none the less rewarding and engrossing.
Review from Khadi:
The Hired Man failed to do justice to the significance of civil war and its impact on people. The ethnic cleansing in Croatia is amongst one of the worst crimes of humanity yet the story is unremarkable. Duro Kolak is a rather endearing war survivor but is pragmatic to a point that he seems devoid of emotion. As the story is told entirely through his eyes you never get to understand the actions or motives of the other characters. It would have been great to understand Kresimir ‘s and Fabjan’s side of the story and know what Anka really felt about her changing circumstances. The transitions between past and present are rather clumsy. As expected from Forna the prose is good but the story left me thinking. ‘What just happened?’.
Review from Marand:
The novel starts with the arrival into the town of Gost of Laura and her children who have bought a house which they will renovate as a holiday home. Initially the story reveals the clash between Laura’s expectations of Croatia, as some sort of undiscovered Tuscany, and the reality. Laura first meets Duro, the hired man of the title, whilst she is searching for the water meter (there is only a well) and she thinks the local markets will provide wholemeal bread, olives and vine tomatoes whereas “instead she found imitation-leather jackets, mobile phone covers and pickled vegetables”. Her teenage son, meanwhile, laments the absence of TV and internet. Later, we become aware of simmering tension in the town, brought to the surface by the re-occupation of the house which obviously has some history caught up in the Balkan conflict of the 1980s.
Although this novel is set in Croatia, Forna has some experience of conflict and its aftermath in her own family background about which she has written both fiction and non-fiction (her father was a Sierra Leonean politician executed for treason). This probably accounts for the under-stated way the story develops, the conflict and its after-effects revealed gradually and sideways.
The author conveys well the tension, and the narrator (Duro) is well-developed and believable, as are Laura’s children. Whilst I did like the book, I really struggled with boredom for the first half which for me dragged and this affects my overall opinion. That said, I was slightly disappointed after Forna’s earlier books.