In the 1990s, a war in Sierra Leone killed tens of thousands of people and shattered the country. Yet writer Aminatta Forna, who is from Sierra Leone, has dedicated her absorbing new novel, The Hired Man, to that other 1990s war-torn region, Yugoslavia, thus subtly illuminating the prolonged aftereffects of all wars.
Duro is a Croat living in the ghostly town of Gost. One day, an Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her son and daughter. Laura has purchased an old house, and enlists Duro’s help in refurbishing it—including uncovering an obscured mosaic. The gradual unveiling of its contents mirrors Duro’s gradual revelations about the area’s violent past.
At first, that past seems far away. Duro’s present life is unremarkable. He likes his coffee and daily exercise, delights in repairs and ends his days with a beer at the local pub. He becomes fond, even protective, of Laura and her children, and shares with them his country’s natural treasures, including endless fields of wildflowers. But beneath the calm beauty is pain: The wildflowers exist because the fields are mine-strewn and thus off-limits. Eventually we learn that Duro participated in the fighting, that the ownership of Laura’s house is contentious and that she is acutely vulnerable to the area’s lingering animosities.
Forna’s decision to write from the perspective of a Croatian man is risky, but Duro is exceedingly convincing: melancholy, not maudlin; stoical, not hard-boiled. He tries to be hospitable and open to Laura while playing down his loss. “Laura,” he muses, “was one of those people who preferred the music of a lie to the discordance of truth.” His memories of the war are an impressive record of the so-called banality of evil.
Nowadays, Croatia’s beaches are as popular as the war was abhorrent, but Forna’s point is taken. Whether you’re gazing at Angkor Wat, dining in once-occupied Paris or having your burek and rakija in Gost, you’re standing on haunted ground.