Bloomsbury £16.99

Review: The Hired Man, By Aminatta Forna

Step-by-step DIY guide to ending a Balkan blood feud

When Laura drives into a Croatian village with the sun glinting off her 4x4, our first glimpse of her is through the sights of a rifle. Holding the gun is Duro, who will be the eyes for this powerful new novel by Aminatta Forna.

He is the local handyman, as well as a hunter with a soft tread and a sharp eye, whose life has been spent in and out of the forest shooting deer, birds and, when necessary, people. Laura is a middle-class Englishwoman abroad, with two teenage children in tow, trilling into the village of Gost to show her appreciation of its pastoral simplicity by renovating an abandoned blue house. But this is no Year in Provence. As Duro notes drily, the English are always in love with the past, but for his countrymen, it is a place best avoided.

You don't casually set a novel in Croatia, with a book jacket promising a mosaic to be discovered under the rotting plaster of the house, without every sign pointing to a story which will expose the savagery that ripped through the former Yugoslavia 20 years ago. Blood feuds are becoming a theme of Forna's work: her two previous acclaimed novels, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, both wound around African civil wars.

It is not the easiest pitch for a novel, but Forna leads the reader gently. The first few chapters are picturesque, even comic at times. Duro offers himself up as a man for hire, helping fix the roof of the house and clearing buddleia from the gutters. He folds the English family's lives into his by taking them swimming at an old haunt of his, fixing up an old Yugoslav car for the recalcitrant teenage son, and showing Laura the local shops. Her hopes for artisanal cheese and vine tomatoes are dashed when she finds that the market sells fake leather jackets and jars of pickled vegetables instead. At the busy local bakery she wonders innocently why the other bakery had to close down, given the demand.

But the real story is ticking beneath. In the village, Duro and his boyhood friend Kresimir stalk around one another with unspoken enmity, and Duro's friendship with the visitors and his renewed interest in the blue house is regarded with suspicion by the locals.

And then the hired man leaves behind the frivolity of this visiting English family and his gruff encounters with his fellow men, and Duro the hunter emerges. He enters the pine forest behind the village, and retreads his footsteps through his own teenage years, with rifle in hand, scoping over memories of friendships and love affairs that fell apart when the blood-letting began.

The pacing of this novel is stunning. After an edgy beginning, it blooms into joyousness halfway through when the mosaic is restored, and then the cruelty begins to flow.

In his 1882 lecture "What is a Nation?", Ernest Renan argued that the question was a "daily plebiscite" for citizens; that every nation is held together by a "forgetfulness" of the brutality out of which it was born. Croatia is such a place and Duro, who regards himself as the guardian of Gost's history, knows the danger of picking away at the plaster veneer of the past. But in the end, The Hired Man is not a simple story of revenge. It is subtler and harder; it is about the power of not exacting revenge.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas