Duro Kolak, the narrator and fulcrum of Aminatta Forna’s excellent fourth book The Hired Man, is a patient man, loyal and solitary. He is a man of routine: Each morning 25 pull-ups, 25 squats, 25 crunches. “I am a builder,” he says of himself, “I work with my hands and I find work where I can and not always easily.”
Work is not easy to find because it is September 2007 and Duro lives in the small Croatian town of Gost—pronounced “ghost,” meaning “visitor” in Croatian—in the aftermath of the wars fought throughout the 1990s that destroyed businesses and families and tourism in that part of the world. He is also the writer of the letter-cum-journal that forms the novel. And the first thing he tells us in his brusque, beautifully descriptive prose, is of the arrival a few months before of Laura, a bright-eyed, blond Englishwoman, and her two teenage children, Matt and Grace, in Gost.
It was summertime then, and the three visitors arrived not as tourists, but in hopes of remodeling a house they have purchased so that it can be sold to tourists as they begin to trickle back—as the memory of war begins to fade. Like the rest of Gost, Duro knows this house, the blue house, well. He remembers who its former residents were, why they are no longer there. He remembers how the betrayals and jealousies that created their absence fester within the town and in himself. The restoration of the blue house is Laura’s project; and it is Duro’s memory, and his ability to mold that project to his own ends, that pulls back the thin scab of habit that hides the wounds in the memories of the residents of Gost. “Laura arrived in Gost and opened a trapdoor,” he says. “Beneath the trapdoor was an infinite tunnel and that tunnel led to the past.”
It is with just this sparseness of style, a cleanness of sentence that at times feels almost Hemingway-ish, that Duro tells of being hired by Laura to help with the work of the blue house’s restoration. He works at her project: fixing the roof, pulling down a dead tree, cleaning the gutters; and at his: chipping away at the plaster to reveal a beautiful mosaic that he knows lies hidden on its outer wall. The mosaic depicts a bird rising into a white sky, with two hands below “trying vainly to touch the beautiful bird, or equally they could belong to the person who just released it.”
He cleans the gutters of the blue house, each handful of half rotten mulch pulled from the house pulled from him as well, and from Gost. It is this analogy between house and town and heart—a familiar one, which is not to say a tired or shallow one—that allows the two timelines of the novel to emerge and the buried past to mix ever more explosively with the present. “My mind had been running along all sorts of lines it hadn’t run on for years,” he writes after some weeks of work. “Most of these memories I’d put safely away, as we all had, then something or someone comes along, like a plough through a fallow field in which all kinds of things lie buried under the crust of the earth.”
Yes, the arrival of Laura is that plow, but so is Duro. He lets us know that he chipped away at the plaster that covered the mural intentionally, so that the beautiful thing that lay beneath would be seen again, remembered. This is his project: memory, in its hardness and its pain, in the work it takes and the hope for healing it holds. Duro’s project is to chip away at the customs that cover memories of mutual betrayal in Gost as well.
Ms. Forna, through Duro, will not allow us to observe this project from the outside. While she allows us to come to the story the way Laura and family do to Gost, as visitors, she is unwilling to allow us to remain so. We are not permitted to remain ignorant of the subtext that underlies each interaction among the town’s life-long residents. Instead, as Duro alternates between telling us of the summer of 2007 and of his own memories, layers are peeled back, casual interactions are given depth, and we begin to see and feel as one who belongs to the brokenness of Gost. We learn to feel the old rage that lies behind Duro’s choice to sit at a certain table in the local bar, the bitterness in his offer to buy a glass of wine for his former friend Kresimir.
Ms. Forna guides our progression with exceeding skill, each chapter chipping away just enough of the plaster that initially obscures our understanding until each interaction resonates hauntingly. The effect of such patience in her writing is something like the opposite of an explosion, in which the strongest force is felt nearest the blast. In Ms. Forna’s writing the detonations instead begin small, the scenes seem innocuous; and then a turn of phrase causes a half-remembered scene to erupt in our minds as we read—a red sunhat bought as a gift, one word for “bread” crossed out and another written in its place. As the novel progresses, what we at first appreciated in Duro’s sparse sentences begins to feel like grenades with unpulled pins. The end result is that like Duro and the residents of Gost, we come to know something of how thin the scab is that covers the wound of betrayal.
If we are honest, betrayals of self and one another are familiar to us. And this familiarity makes The Hired Man resonate all the more, because we all know something of old wounds, whether given or received. And we know that they can lie buried for a long time. We know what it is to grow familiar—in a family, a marriage or a small town after a war—with stepping around wounds, or directly on them. We know, to our sadness, how to keep them from healing, and that we are all guilty, one time or another, of having done so. But we also know what it is to be Duro, the one who “stands guard over the past,” refusing to let it be forgotten—regardless of whether what is remembered is welcome or not-so. And Ms. Forna knows this about us; and her ability to evoke these wounds, and to leave open the hope for their healing, is what makes The Hired Man a success.
So out with it: This is a story about sin. It is a story about how it is that the members of a small town are brought face to face with a guilt they have lacquered over. But even more, this lovely, haunting novel is a story that asks not only whether Duro will remember, or Gost, or even whether we will remember, but whether we will allow our remembering to bring healing or will let it calcify us in our customs of mutual betrayal.