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The Hired Man: A Novel, by Aminatta Forna.

September 7, 2018

The Hired Man
The Hired Man: A Novel, by Aminatta Forna.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013.

5 stars

A compelling novel about a Croatian village before and after its civil war, told by a fine African novelist who has known her own civil wars.

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland to a Senegalese father and a Scottish mother. As a child, she moved from country to country. Her father was killed by opposition politicians in Senegal when she was 11.  She later wrote about his death and her search for his story in The Devil that Danced on the Waters.  Two of her books are based in Senegal and one is about diverse immigrants in London.  (See my reviews.)  I find her an amazing writer that I barely know how to describe.

The narrator of The Hired Man is a solitary man, Duro, who is a longtime resident of a small Croatian village.  He lives alone doing whatever jobs he can to support himself and his two dogs.  His life changes with the arrival of an English woman, Laura, and her two teenagers. She has come to live in and renovate a small blue house which her husband has bought.  As Forna describes, Laura is an attractive woman who assumes that she will be understood when she speaks English in a foreign land.  She barely knows where to start work on the house until Duro appears, helps, and gets hired to work for her.  As he works, we gradually learn he has known and loved the house and its former occupants.  Working on the house and interaction with the English family awakens his memories of civil war and what he has lost.  It also awakens hostile relations with some in the village.

Forna tells her story with grace and restraint, alternating smoothly between the village in the present, years after the war ended, and what has happened in the past.  Relatively little actually takes place, but the book is haunted by love and loss.  Forna shows us the ongoing cost of war and trauma for those involved.  We are also forced to face that war is about people.  Civil war is about friends and family on both sides, and personal betrayals, and the memories that don’t end when the war ends.  We can talk about long-term animosities between groups, but we miss personal elements of being attacked by those we consider friends or family.  Yet Forna and her reserved hired man give us distance and space to begin to understand the pain.

The Hired Man is probably Forna’s best book, and I have loved all of them.  Its focus is sharper and more unified.  I only wish I had paid more attention to war in the Balkans, as we called it, so that I could have picked up more quickly on the ethnicity indicated by their family names.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all readers.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2018 6:28 pm

    Your last remark makes me think…I wonder if Forma wrote this book because the media paid so little attention to it? There is so much preoccupation with the 20th century world wars…

    • September 9, 2018 9:06 am

      Maybe so. I also remember her saying when the book came out that she wanted to explore war and trauma outside Africa which is so personal for her.

      • September 9, 2018 4:41 pm

        LOL She gave me a bit of a quandary with this book. I’m having a bit of a splurge on novels written by African writers at the moment and I didn’t know whether to include this one in the pile or not. In the end I didn’t because what I’m trying to do is to learn more about the history and culture of the countries our new migrants are coming from. But I’ll get to it one day.

  2. September 9, 2018 6:51 am

    I read this three or four years ago, Marilyn, and was very impressed. (There’s a review on my blog.) It was my first Forna. I’d happily read more.

    • September 9, 2018 9:07 am

      She has published 3 other novels and a memoir about researching her father’s death in Senegal. They are different, but I have like them all.

      • September 9, 2018 11:50 pm

        Yes I know, as the friend who recommended it to our group had read all or most of her books. And loved them.

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