The Hired Man, a novel
Gost, Croatia, is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers in which nobody walks. The summer sun burns. The winter brings freezing winds.
Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived.
A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer Grace, Laura's daughter, painstakingly restores it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.
Awards and Honors
The Hired Man was picked as one of the best books of 2013 by NPR, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Australian and the NZ Listener. It was a Barnes & Noble 2013 Critics Choice and nominated for the 2014 IMPAC Award.
Reviews and Praise for The Hired Man
"There are few contemporary writers who bear better witness to history's nightmarishness—its surreal violence and its ability to trap us in cycles of brutality—than novelist Aminatta Forna." Anthony Domestico for The San Francisco Chronicle
"Forna is a born storyteller, but she plies a new mode here....[she] elegantly depicts the mind of a man giving in, at last, to the call of the past. Not since Remains of the Day has an author so skillfully revealed the way history's layers are often invisible to all but its participants, who do what they must to survive. Skills acquired in war do, in fact, translate well to subsistence living. In this gorgeous novel, Aminatta Forna shows what doesn’t translate, however, and what makes war's aftermath so long, melancholy, and deadly." John Freeman for The Boston Globe
"Aminatta Forna is one of those rare writers who can create stillness and silence on the page....Tentatively, fragment by fragment, the present is peeled back to expose the wounds of the past. Each revelation, however great, seems intimate on this small stage and Forna modulates the growing suspense with exquisite skill....[T]his tightly compressed novel, crisscrossed by scars, is above all beautiful, reminiscent in its mesmerizing clarity of William Trevor's fiction or Per Petterson's." Anna Mundow for the Barnes & Noble Review in The Christian Science Monitor
"This is a stunning novel, beautifully executed and cleverly crafted. Not every novelist is capable of producing limpid prose that has at the same time murky, hidden depths, but once again Aminatta Forna manages it masterfully. The Hired Man is a taut, unsettling but also intensely moving portrait of humanity at its most flawed." Malcolm Forbes for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Forna has walked the walk, lived close to the darkness she reveals—darkness in situations that call for truth rather than another layer of dust and disguise." Charles R. Larson for CounterPunch
"Aminatta Forna has given us a novel that belies its modest premise, a book about how the human mind protects itself by not knowing, yet sometimes, due to unexpected circumstances, comes to terms with what it thought it could not." Robert Silman for The Arts Fuse
"Forna's narrative is notable for its subdued, meticulous renderings of domestic settings and rhythms, which make the sense of imminent menace and the eventual atrocities even more shocking. Acceptance and denial are talked out in meticulous detail, which does make the middle chapters dense and even opaque on occasions. But the moral and visceral force of the ending makes up for it all. A measured, inexorable examination of people living their quiet, horrified lives. Feel very, very lucky." David Hill for The New Zealand Herald
"[A] miracle of literary achievement." Nigel Featherstone for The Sydney Morning Herald
"Beautifully paced, chilly and brooding in tone, and powerfully gripping." Kirkus Reviews
"A powerful exploration of the impact that violence has on those who suffer it and those who inflict it." Publishers Weekly
"Forna's writing has a layered, nuanced way of texturing the very lack of communication with deep-seated meaning." Manasi Subramaniam for The Sunday Guardian
"Knowing, and not daring to know; the difference between innocence and ignorance; the dangers of people entering situations that they do not understand: all of these are Forna's themes, expressed with a deliberated coolness of tone. The best of this novel lies in its bleak, thoughtful insistence that the lives that have to be lived after the killing is over are almost beyond the comprehension of outsiders. To recognise what you do not understand is, perhaps, the first step on the journey." Helen Dunmore for The Times
"What happened, one might wonder, to those who endured the worst horrors in Europe since the Second World War? How did ordinary people survive? Among those not native to that part of the world, the writer best placed to answer such questions is probably Aminatta Forna, a specialist in the aftermath of conflict....Combining a contemporary domestic drama with a tragic tale of recent war, The Hired Man is artfully constructed. Similarly, although the book is carefully researched, its treatment of history is oblique. Ostensibly, this is because the story is coming from the laconic Duro, who takes certain facts for granted (significantly, he never once mentions "Serbs" but identifies them by cultural markers). In reality, behind the simple Duro there stands a sophisticated author, whose novel is all the more powerful for not being overexplicit." David Grylls for The Sunday Times
"[P]owerful....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." Joy LoDico for The Independent
"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." Arifa Akbar for The Independent
"Forna.... pulls off a bravura performance with her depiction of a homunculus Croatian handyman. If her second novel The Memory of Love, set in Africa, confirmed Forna's flair for writing about war and its aftermath, The Hired Man seals her reputation as arguably the best writer of fiction in this field. The intelligence of Forna's storytelling is testament to a woman who...has deep emotional resources. Combine this with 10 years as a journalist for the BBC and you have a "method" writer who didn't just research guns for this book, she learned how to shoot. The result is that scenes like the soldier's comically brutal execution in the forest or Duro's valediction to his dog are both masterclasses in descriptive writing....I found myself so eagerly consuming the story that I was missing the subtlety of her whispered prose and had to keep turning back to previous chapters. Forna is an author who demands much thought from her reader—not to mention Googling the fantastically complex Balkan Wars just to keep up. This is a novel to be passed on judiciously, like a special gift, a tale of two summers you may well want to read twice." Jackie Annesley for London Evening Standard
"[A]n ingenious examination of the kind of ghosts that those with no experience of civil war are unable to see." Frances Perraudin for The Observer
"[Q]uietly gripping." Adrian Turpin for Financial Times
"It's a sharp, pertinent, absorbing story told by a writer of extreme gifts—one who disappears into her narrative and her characters, and who makes every nuance of surface communication and behaviour revealing of deeper truths. Forna is brilliant on male competition and unspoken resentments; brilliant on the passive-aggressive communication techniques of teenagers and married people; brilliant on awkward sexual undercurrents in platonic friendships; brilliant on dogs. All of this felt emotional detail builds toward the revelation of Gost's history and Duro’s personal role therein effectively enough that when it comes, it's neither melodramatic nor unconvincingly mythic, but real and immediate." Hannah McGill for Scotsman.com
"The dual present/past narrative has become a cliche in recent literary fiction—but it's one that Aminatta Forna uses here with terrific skill and insight." Harry Ritchie for Daily Mail (online edition)
"The precise extent of the ethnic cleansing carried out during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia may never be known; and to its credit, Forna's novel does not attempt an explanation or an argument for either side. But she has a terrific ability to evoke the poisonous atmosphere of culpability and denial from which civil conflicts emerge: 'Grudges are reckoned. Greed grows. People denounce their neighbours to the new authorities with an eye on their chest freezers and televisions.'...Forna brilliantly portrays the atmosphere of festering tension in which perpetrators of the most grotesque acts of violence continue to live side by side, the trauma of the recent past disregarded by an influx of moneyed incomers too ignorant to realise that the wildflower meadows remain untilled because of unexploded mines. The novel is a continuation of Forna's overriding theme; the gradual accretion of small, seemingly insignificant acts of betrayal that eventually find expression in full-scale horror. In that respect, she remains committed to a single story; though The Hired Man triumphantly proves that the story need not always remain the same." Alfred Hickling for The Guardian
"[D]eeply felt and coolly self-contained....shaping fiction to work for history's sake; obliging musical lies to sing the unbelievable truth." Geordie Williamson for The Australian