Aminatta Forna is one of those rare writers who can create stillness and silence on the page: the silence of early morning, for example, filling a remote valley; the stillness of a man on a hillside watching the distant approach of a stranger's car. "An early sun had burned off most of the mist," Forna writes, "so I'd turned back to fetch my rifle even though it was not the season to hunt." Duro Kolak, the narrator of Forna's astonishing new novel, The Hired Man, holds the car in his rifle sights. Then he descends to the road and listens, unseen, outside an abandoned house. "They spoke in English.... I retreated softly...."
Duro lives in Gost, a small town in Croatia. The year is 2007 and he is 46 years old. He has survived the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, and his story will eventually return to that time. For now, however, Duro's attention is fixed on the Englishwoman who has bought a house that Duro knows intimately, and which he is soon hired to repair. "She'd greeted me in English," he notes of Laura, who arrives with a teenage son and daughter, "I wondered what kind of assurance she possessed to speak to a stranger in a foreign land in her own tongue and expect to be understood. Clearly she enjoyed the luck of the innocent." Later, when Duro suffers a sudden loss, Laura avoids his eye, "as though pain was a disease you could catch." Blithe, sentimental, and crass, she is one of Forna's finest creations.
Tentatively, fragment by fragment, the present is peeled back to expose the wounds of the past. Each revelation, however great, seems intimate on this small stage and Forna modulates the growing suspense with exquisite skill. From the moment that Duro tracks the car with his rifle, suspicion and unease are palpable. He becomes the family's trusted protector, yet conceals what he knows of their new holiday home: who created the hidden mosaic on one wall, for example, and what lies buried in the surrounding hills. "The rain had cleared the air," he recalls of an afternoon in the hills, 16 years earlier, "and now the heat of the sun releases the stink, along with the smell of earth and rotting leaves and something else, wet ash." Horror follows, beautifully rendered.
Duro's recollections carry the novel back to the Yugoslav wars when the National Army shells Gost daily, killing, among others, Duro's father and sister. Later, a local militia begins its own venal round of ethnic cleansing, and his beloved disappears. By then, he too has become a killer ("I place different parts of him at the centre of my cross hair, his left eye, then his right eye.... I'm so close to him I can hear his breathing") and soon Gost, irrevocably stained by blood and betrayal, is populated by survivors "missing an arm, or a leg, or maybe just part of their soul."
Forna wisely resists explaining the war in this region once known as the Serbian Republic of Krajina. Rather she conveys its ghastly texture and rhythms, how it feels. Yet this tightly compressed novel, crisscrossed by scars, is above all beautiful, reminiscent in its mesmerizing clarity of William Trevor's fiction or Per Petterson's. "It was the blue hour," Duro says of a summer evening, "Streaks of cloud across a lapis lazuli sky. The hills: three shades of purple, the deepest, a black purple, to the fore, and the palest, almost lilac, to the back with the last of the light behind them." At the coast, he contemplates the horizon "which shimmered and shook, a tightrope between sky and earth."
A similar thread, taut and vibrating, links the drama sparked by Laura's arrival – which culminates in a drunken intrusion, one of the novel's finest scenes – to past crimes, of war and peace. "It turned out that we were the sort of people who would steal from the houses of those who had fled," Duro observes, "which we did, without shame." Yet Duro remains, his hometown disfigured by war and now discovered by tourists, to keep watch over the innocent dead and the guilty living. "Aged ten I lost a shooting contest," he recalls, "... I was nervous. My father put his hand on my ribcage, he told me I needed to learn how to still my heart." Forna teaches her readers the same lesson.