Let us go to the small town of Gost, set in the small country of Croatia. This town and its dwindling population have weathered the civil war raging Yugoslavia or what is left of it. Many people have lost their life or have moved to the coast where tourism is on its way back. The town is surrounded by hills and mountains, valleys and forests. Deer is roaming. Not many people follow the footsteps of the deer.
One of the people who lives at the outskirts of the town is Duro Kolak, who lives on his own. He has travelled, lived at different places, had jobs in the tourism industry. He has his roots firmly set in Gost and it surrounding areas. He lives with his two hunting dogs, one of them is old blind, but with a superior smell. Duro and his dogs often go out hunting, to get a good supply of meat. At other times he walks to the local café to have a drink and to meet a few of his old friends.
One day he sees movements at nearby house that was empty. He saunters to the place and finds out that a family has moved in. A family from England. Mother Laura and her two teenage children (Matthew and Grace) have moved in. Connor, Laura’s husband is at work in England. The family plans to use this small house as a summer hide-out. Duro offers to help out with restoring the house and the outbuildings. In this way his life gets intertwined with this small family. They trust him with all the different jobs that have to be done in order to make the house habitable again.
During the repairs some discoveries are being made, for instance an old colourful mosaic is being discovered underneath the plaster of one of the outside walls. Grace painstakingly restores the mosaic. Next she sets her eyes on restoring another treasure: a fountain in the garden, also with a mosaic. Matthew shows his reluctant presence in this house, far away from his friends and his usual habits. In the end Duno manages to break down some barriers and the two go out shooting and hunting. The people in town keep their distance, eventhough Laura her best to connect to the people in town.
Duno, who relates this story, travels back and forth in time. He shows what happens during the war, before and after, the shifting relationships with people in the town and with friends. Slowly and beautifully the story unfolds when the different strands of Duno’s life come to the fore. The past has not gone. It is alive and present, when he walks the streets, helps Laura and her children, when he sits at the café. His hunting outings have brought joy and shockingly brutal discoveries. Old friendships, dating back to his youth, have deteriorated. Did friends run? Did friends die? Did friends cause other friends to die? These questions linger on the pages.
Aminatta Forna has written a beautiful book about scars from the past that do not leave one’s bruised body. Living in the present cannot undo the past. You live with memories of flesh and blood, dead and alive.
The Hired Man
Bloomsbury Publishing, London 2013