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by Aminatta Forna

4 stars

An English family take a house in Croatia, planning to spend the summer doing it up before selling it on, apparently oblivious to the horrors that had happened around them not so very long ago – or are they? The pre-teen daughter knows more than she lets on to her mother, or does her mother simply not want to know? Duro – the local man hired to renovate a house he knows too well – isn’t telling, and will never tell. He, like everyone around him, has wrapped himself in lies to protect him from nightmares. The family come to rely heavily on practical, capable Duro. A love story seems to be developing – or is that all in Duro’s head? What happens in Duro’s head is the story. The character development is wonderful, as a taciturn, damaged man reluctantly gives up his story.
There is nothing surprising or remarkable in the plot, the characters are what makes this tale: Duro especially, but also the members of English family, who are instantly recognisable and real. The story is slow and all too predictable – we all know what happened in the Balkans and how this tale of buried memories will end. The Hired Man is about the slow reveal: the parts the various protagonists played – like a striptease, a dance of the seven veils, like peeling a scab from an old wound. It’s about a cast of characters trapped in a life where someone hit pause button over two decades ago. Everyone lies: to his neighbours and to himself. No one dares speak out or tell what they know about each other. Everyone lives with a past like a loose thread no one dares pull.

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