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.