Friday, 10 May 2013

'In towns like this there is nothing to do but learn to live with each other'

I very much enjoyed Aminatta Forna's Orange-shortlisted The Memory of Love, although I had some reservations about the ending, so I was eager to get my hands on her latest novel. Although, superficially, The Hired Man seems to contrast with her earlier novel - set in a fictional, isolated Croatian village rather than in postwar Sierra Leone - its major themes are very similar. Gost may seem sleepy on the surface, but underneath, a kind of collective turmoil is brewing as the villagers struggle to come to terms with the experience of the civil wars of the 1990s. Our narrator, Duro Kolak, is a wonderful guide to this uneasy truce, a genuine, warm and kind man whom it is difficult not to like. When Laura and her teenage children Matthew and Grace arrive from England to move into the 'blue house' - which, unknown to them, is the incubator for many of the painful memories the villagers are still nursing - it is Duro who befriends and defends them against the hostility of many of the other inhabitants. Gradually, however, the suffering in his past is revealed as well, as he works through his reasons for deciding to stay in Gost rather than fleeing to Zagreb with his mother and sister.

It is Duro's voice that really makes this novel. Although much of the content feels familiar, the gentle narrative makes it utterly compelling. Forna masterfully weaves together the past and present history of Gost, tracking the same swells and falls, so we feel as if Duro's story is carried along on a series of small waves. A lesser writer would have adopted Laura's perspective, but Duro allows us to see the tiny details of everyday life that reveal what lurks beneath the surface in Gost, details that the oblivious Laura misses entirely. Grace, her quiet teenage daughter, is a much more astute observer, and it is through her questioning of Duro that much of his memories are brought back to light. Forna's greatest achievement, in the end, is in sketching a careful portrait of the threads that link together the villagers, and showing the reader how they manage to co-exist despite the betrayals and horrors of the past; indeed, in making this a novel, like The Memory of Love, that is very much about the experience of civil war rather than war in the abstract.

This novel would have been virtually perfect were it not for the fact that some of Duro's memories of the happier past feel insubstantial, compared to the strength of the rest of his narrative. His earlier memories of childhood playmates Anka and Kresimir seem idealised, and Anka, especially, never seems to come into her own as a character; she seems to exist merely as an object for Duro to pin his emotions onto. Of course, as we see everything from Duro's perspective, this may be intentional, but I still felt there could have been more sense of Anka as an individual. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble, and I would strongly recommend this novel.

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