Aminatta Forna has been hailed as a great new African voice ever since her debut memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water (2003) which traced her politician father's execution in Sierra Leone, right up to her Orange prize shortlisted novel, The Memory of Love (2010), also set in the country of her childhood.
It may have been this double-edge praise for a half-Scottish novelist who writes of such universal themes as love, war and betrayal that led her to pledge, in 2010, that the next book would be far removed from Africa.
True to her word, the story of The Hired Man unravels in contemporary Croatia, over a single summer. It is told through a male narrator, Duro Kolak, a handyman with a scarred personal history that leaks out over the course of this unsettling and supremely masterful novel. Duro is 'the hired man' for a British family that has bought a summer home in Gost, a sleepy village whose identity is torn between its recent history as a territory spilling with terrors during the conflict after the break-up of former Yugoslavia, and its post-war re-invention as a tourist oasis.
Forna wrote adeptly about the the indelible stains of war in The Memory of Love. This novel looks specifically at how war makes enemies of neighbours. Duro has lived in Gost nearly all his life, and for him it functions as a 'heimat' in which seismic conflicts are played out in the households of its small, rural community.
Villagers resist the re-invention of Gost that the British family demands. Laura, the mother who arrives with her two teenage children, is intent on 'holidaying' here and both she and her self-involved son stay resolutely blind to the undercurrents that her daughter is more willing to face. Their new home is refurbished, its scars covered up by Duro, while a set of bold mosaic artworks are uncovered on its walls. Their uncovering re-open wounds that Duro has attempted to paste over these past years. This refurbishing becomes a subtle and ironic metaphor. For Duro, this is his summer of unpasting, and remembering.
We meet him as a solitary and taciturn figure who is never far from his hunter's firearm. His quiet containment hints unnervingly to secrets in his past – that he conceals just how good a shot he is, that he knows more about the holiday house, the mosaics and the buried mysteries of the village than he is prepared to voice. His story's unspooling is the central mystery. The depth of his character is revealed in every tic of his lonely, ritualised life, and his past is glimpsed in every freighted friendship and casual interaction he has with the men of the town. Through his brooding, bristling machismo, he becomes one of Hemingway's men – epic in his small, everyman heroism.
Every relationship is keenly realised, right down to Duro's wordless love for his dogs. The family is sharply observed but they are never sneered at, such as Laura's near reverential mother-love for her son, and her unquestioned entitlement to this sunny corner of Croatia, which she regards as her tabula rasa for a 'getaway'.
What stands out in all of this is Forna's near-perfect authorial control. She reveals her story at a pace of measured suspense until it reads like a slow-burn thriller. Her prose quietly grips us by the throat and then tightens its hold. It is storytelling at its most taut, and it leaves Forna less a gifted African voice, more a gifted writer, and one who has, with this book, magnificently realised her literary potential.