This is the story of Duro Kolkak, a 46-year-old handyman living in the fictional Croatian village of Gost. The year is 2007, and the villagers (the ones who haven’t moved away at least) still bear the emotional scars of the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. But no one speaks much of the past these days in Gost, and while other places along the Croatian coast are growing wealthy from a resurgence of tourism, life in the isolated village remains hard.
Because work is slow, Duro takes his two dogs (the older one named Kos is blind!) on frequent hunting trips into the wooded hills above town. While tracking game, the introspective bachelor recounts in his mind events from his childhood leading up to the present, and the reader begins to suspect that the dense forests surrounding Gost hold as many secrets as they do deer.
Then, everything changes when a middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives in Gost with her two children. Laura and her absent husband have just purchased a quaint little house on the outskirts of town, which they plan on renovating and ‘flipping’ at the end of the summer. She hires Duro to do the repairs and it quickly becomes apparent that he is intimately familiar with the house.
But while Duro and Laura quickly become friends, the other inhabitants of Gost are made uneasy by the uninvited guests. And as more and more of Duro’s backstory is revealed, we soon learn why. (Gost, by the way, means “guest” or “visitor” in Croatian, which is fitting for the arrival of the foreigners; but when the townspeople’s haunted memories begin rising to the surface, readers can’t help thinking of “ghost”).
"… the animals had been hunted to near extinction … Then came the chaos, when men turned to hunting each other."
On the surface, The Hired Man is the story of a friendly local and his wealthy employer, but Aminatta Forna’s richly textured novel is far more complicated than that. The mild foreboding of violence that undercuts much of the book’s earlier sections first becomes explicit during one of Duro’s hunts in the forests outside of Gost. After he spots a massive wild boar, Duro reflects on what a rare encounter he has just witnessed: “Once they were quite common,” he recalls, “but then the animals had been hunted to near extinction. Men from Zagreb. Men with pale hands and expensive rifles. Then came the chaos, when men turned to hunting each other.”
That tossed-off remark certainly darkened the book’s initial light tone for me. But even as the storyline gets darker, there are scattered bits of black humor. During a visit to the town’s cemetery, Duro recalls one of his now-deceased father’s favorite jokes: “A woman goes to a fortune teller who tells her she will become a widow within the year. Her husband will die a violent death. The woman is shaken. She puts her hand on her heart, takes a deep breath and asks, ‘Will I be acquitted?’”
For Duro, Laura is the catalyst that dredges up memories of what is euphemistically referred to as the “chaos.” The chaos, of course, refers to the bitter inter-ethnic Yugoslav wars that primarily affected Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s. And late in the book, we read about some of the tragedies that Duro witnessed—and actively participated in—16 years earlier. “Laura arrived in Gost,” he says, “and opened a trapdoor. Beneath the trapdoor was an infinite tunnel and that tunnel led to the past.” We soon learn of the terrible secrets among the villagers and how the house Duro repairs is the key to many of these secrets.
While Duro is a fictional character, the events depicted in The Hired Man are very real—and no less powerful when couched in such elegant prose. Forna’s richly layered novel is packed with numerous secrets and lies, love and betrayals. And it’s a beautifully rendered story about the importance of memory and how people can become haunted by the ghosts of the past.
- Reviewed by John BregoliRead More About Europe