“I will not rejoice in the many consolations and revenges we will get,” wrote the Croatian poet Tin Ujevic, who died long before war and independence would return to his country. “[B]ecause it will be too late.”
What Ujevic could have added is how the tardiness of such upheaval means it arrives in a context radically changed, isolating those who longed and suffered for it. Such is the case in Aminatta Forna’s fiercely mournful new novel, “The Hired Man.” Duro Kolkak, the book’s hero and narrator, works as a handyman in the Croatian village of Gost in 2007, some years after the civil strife. The glittering coastline, newly beloved by tourists, is two hours to the south. Gost retains a static, Old World pace.
When work is slow, Duro takes his two dogs and hunting rifle to the woods to track deer for food. He repairs his tiny home. Every morning he performs 20 push-ups and drinks one coffee. These rituals are disturbed by the arrival of a family of English sojourners who have purchased a home to renovate and flip for a profit. They take to Duro immediately, as people with no useful skills do with handymen.
Forna is a born storyteller, but she plies a new mode here. “The Hired Man’ has neither the epic scope of “The Memory of Love,” her recent Orange Prize finalist novel, nor the astonishing global reach of “The Devil that Danced on Water,” her debut memoir.
“The Hired Man” is compressed and sober, like its hero, whom the foreigners hire to rebuild their home. Duro says what is necessary and little more. He develops a crush on Laura, the mother of two who waits anxiously for her husband to join her. But he does not make a pass.
Gradually, like the moment a train whistle begins to become audible, Duro’s sense of control over this story slackens. Memories of his childhood arise, called up by sudden proximity to the unburdened foreigners, and Forna elegantly depicts the mind of a man giving in, at last, to the call of the past.
A reader will lose track of the ways “The Hired Man” surprises. Just when you think it is a novel about a taciturn local and his rich employer, it becomes a far more complicated story about love.
Duro knew love, once, and the manner of its departure has not scarred him, but made him a man distrustful of passion. Using a first-person voice, which shuffles between intimate and nearly omniscient tones, “The Hired Man” shows how the woods Duro hunts are mapped by memories he has buried there. The house he repairs is significant in many hidden ways.
It turns out that Gost, which sounds like ghost, is haunted by them. In Croatian, the word means “visitor,” which is essentially what Laura and her family are to everyone but Duro. As “The Hired Man” continues, and its detours into the past’s inky shadows lengthen, it becomes clear that there are two realities in the small town: the one where the past shades every moment, even the tiniest gesture between villagers, and another where the past is gone.
“The Hired Man” masterfully plays these two senses of reality off each other. The book begins in the former when Laura arrives; it then straddles them, as Duro tips into memory while trying to help the foreigners with their house. And then in a bravura late section, it submerges us so deep in Duro’s violent past that when we return to the present tense we do so with a jolt and an anxious sense of being followed.
The results of this movement lend “The Hired Man” an echoing mystery and depth. It also means that the book’s early scenes, of Duro and his childhood friends at a local bar, seemingly killing time, acquire a retroactive menace. Nods, silences, terse encounters, now pulse with triple meanings — and occasionally, black humor.
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, the former editor of Granta, is the author most recently of “How to Read a Novelist.”