Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge
I want everyone to read The Hired Man. Aminatta Forna has written a compelling fictional memoir of a terrible moment in European history. I was at university when the Balkan wars began. I remember being horrified and perplexed |at how this kind of thing could still be happening after the horrors of World War 2. Innocent in my belief in the ability of humans to learn from the past, I guess.
This book is beautiful and disturbing. There are some who choose to remember in order that those who would prefer to forget aren’t allowed to. I couldn’t put the book down for long. I finished it within a day. Despite the note of hope at the end, I felt bruised by it.
The book begins with deceptive simplicity. The narrator, Duro, encounters an English woman and her children in the disused cottage of a childhood friend. He offers his services as a builder to help her get the house habitable again. Duro’s work on the house triggers memories of his childhood, and he begins to hint at the unspoken tragedies of the Balkan wars that broke up Yugoslavia. The English woman, Laura, is deliberately ignorant of the area’s recent past, and Duro indulges her. The theme of the book is the way communities that have been fractured by war assimilate the atrocities in order to continue living. Duro has an air of nothing really mattering any more, having suffered tragedy and loss. The English family are tourists, property developers who don’t want their personal myths about the region disturbed by truth. Laura’s husband, Conor, is a comfortable man, satisfied with his life, ignorant of real suffering. He does business deals and, to him, this makes him a powerful man. He doesn’t recognise that, during a shooting competition he has instigated, Duro uses his greater skill to make it seem Conor is his equal because Duro knows that winning is meaningless. Knowing who you are and how to survive is what matters. As Duro recollects his past and learns more about the English family, the tension surrounding the pseudo Year In Provence story being lived by his new neighbours starts to increase.
It’s a quietly told tale, but it twisted my gut more than once, opening my eyes to the experience of people during and after a war that happened on the periphery of my existence, a war that I had tidied away presuming everything was okay now, 25 years down the line. According to this book, it is only okay in the sense that the survivors don’t talk about what happened, they simply get on with life in its current incarnation.