By the end of The Hired Man, Aminatta Forna has made it clear that she knows many ways to tell a story. There are words, obviously, which the “hired man” of the title, Duro, uses in his written account. But Duro also perpetually performs a story through actions, in which he uses the people in the (fictional) village of Gost, Croatia, to tell and re-tell of events that happened long ago.
The written story begins in September 2007, when Duro decides to write a memoir of sorts. He lives alone in a small house outside the village. The nearest house has been empty for some years. Though the house belongs to Krešimir, Duro’s former friend, he has sold the house to a family from England: Conor, who is often away on business; his wife, Laura, whom Duro finds attractive even as he analyzes her rather detachedly; and Laura’s two teenage children from her first marriage, Matthew and Grace. Lured by the relatively inexpensive real estate on the Adriatic coast, Laura and her family have purchased the house as a vacation home. Duro becomes their hired man, making small repairs around the house and its outbuildings.
Duro alternates between writing of his interactions with Laura and her family in the present, and his memories of his family and Krešimir’s family from long ago. At no point does one narrative overshadow the other. Each is equally compelling and the cuts work well to create suspense over how the two will come together. Rereading makes Forna’s skillfull technical work even more apparent, as certain scenes reveal themselves to be neat bits of foreshadowing. Because of the alternating plotlines, sometimes events in the present which are related to us early on effectively foreshadow events in the past that we are not told of until later. It’s not merely literary swagger; Forna’s mastery of form means something important in a novel about how the past is alive in the present.
Among other things, Duro remembers how the enmity between himself and Krešimir developed over some years, due in part to Krešimir’s mistreatment of his own younger sister, Anka, with whom Duro falls in love. Their secret relationship is ended when Krešimir exposes them and Duro is sent away. He does not return to Gost for ten years, just before the wartime of the early 1990s. For a number of reasons, Krešimir would like to forget that time– but Duro has other ideas. It is not revenge he is after, but a penance of sorts. Duro quickly observes that Laura bears no slight physical resemblance to Anka, and that many of the villagers find her unsettling for that reason.
Moreover, the villagers are resentful of outsiders like Laura, who see their home as a vacation spot, “who would drive into Gost and think the fields had always been full of flowers.” People like Laura have both a gift and a limitation, which is that they can look at the world and tell themselves the stories they want to hear. Laura never realizes that Duro knew the people who lived in her house before her, and she never wonders what became of them, even though she must be aware on some level that a war was fought there less than twenty years before. Forna knows that this is one way to tell a story to yourself: to simply choose the things you like and ignore the rest. Duro is burdened with the opposite gift, which is to see everything, good and bad, and never to be able to forget it or stop hurting from it.
It is Grace, curiously, who represents a medium. She has Duro’s clear-sightedness, but none of his painful memories, and through her Forna suggests that it is possible to remember the past and still appreciate the beauty of the present. In these three, Forna’s character work is most impressive. Though they represent different approaches, they are simultaneously real people. We get to know Duro most intimately, but Laura is interesting as a “type”: you feel you know people just like her, and like Duro, the reader is both admiring of her ease and critical of her ignorance. Grace is the rare teenager who is awkward because her age has not caught up to her mind. One senses it would be a pleasure to watch her come into her own, when her name will suit her.
And it is through Grace that Forna projects her story into the future beyond the pages of the book: Duro is writing to her. In this way, the last pages of The Hired Man are of a piece, structurally and thematically, with the rest of Forna’s excellent novel: the story, written, is past. But we, the readers, carry it into the future.