Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man is a novel deceptive in its simplicity. Set in the fictional town of Gost, Croatia, it follows a middle-aged bachelor handyman named Duro who works for an English family who have bought a little blue house to restore. The town is quiet, a place where Internet is only available in cafes and which can only sustain a single bakery, but beneath a calm surface runs a terrible, troubled current.
It begins tentatively, with Duro approaching the new owners of the blue house with an offer to help. Quickly, it becomes obvious that his relationship with the house is more than mere proximity. Forna does a good job throwing the reader off the scent with plot details that seem to indicate an attraction to Laura, the house’s new owner, as motivation for Duro’s hard work. Living humbly in the woods with his dogs, it is clear that money is not what Duro is after; a logical assumption is that he wants love instead.
But the chapters that take entries from Duro’s journal entries dispel that notion. In those pages, the horrific memories from the wars of the 1990s come bubbling to the surface. By writing only these passages in present tense, Forna amplifies the raw, gaping nature of the psychological wounds left at that time. For a novel that begins innocuously, the transformation into a chronicle of war — complete with Duro’s time in the Army, the loss of his family and loved ones, and his own personal, incomplete revenge — is jarring, horrible and stunning.
The Hired Man is a study of the way people grapple with the horrors of their past: the way we fear them, confront them and eventually come to live with them. Slowly, deliberately, Forna explores unhealed wounds and suppressed memories, and in doing so unravels a tale that is sure to horrify and ultimately inspire you.
For a novel whose value relies so heavily on things that lurk under the surface — memories, scars and the like — I made a take on Croatian fritule, beignet-like fritters with bits of apple and nuts that burst like surprises after a bite or two. Outwardly, the apple-walnut fritters appear simple and straightforward; what lies within, layered into the fluffy fried dough, are fragments of ingredients that were once whole. Their appearance mars the interior of the fritters, but without them, the dessert would not be so complex, unexpected and, of course, delicious.
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