When an Englishwoman arrives in the small Croatian town of Gost with her family, she surprises the locals with her delight in the blue house she has bought as a summer retreat, a cottage that hasn't been lived in for over a decade. With her husband stuck at work in London, Laura will need someone to help with repairs - and luckily, her neighbour, Duro Kolak, is soon on hand to help out, becoming the hired man of the title.
Duro lives alone in a shack nearby with his two dogs, making ends meet by doing odd jobs and hunting, though really he can turn his hand to anything. He can speak English too, which is just as well for Laura, who is surprised when shopkeepers cannot understand her requests.
Over the weeks that follow, Duro helps renovate the house, fix the roof, and organise an electric water pump. In the outbuildings the family discover an old car, a red Fico, which Duro resuscitates much to the delight of bored teenager, Matthew. Laura's daughter, Grace, uncovers a mosaic on the outside front wall of the house and a tiled fountain which Duro encourages her to restore. He takes the family to the waterhole he swam in as a boy and on outings to nearby towns.
On the surface, the story seems to be about the relationship, often awkward, between the English family and this helpful local. One can't help but wonder why this intelligent, middle-aged man continues to live in a town which his own family have deserted. He doesn't really have any friends either - he chats tensely with Fabjan, owner of the local bar whom he patently despises. There is an obvious rift between Duro and his old schoolmate, Kresimir. Duro seems too genial to be an obvious loner. And why are the local people of Gost so curiously unhelpful towards the English family, who bring a little extra money to a town with little economic viability?
Just as the mosaic's picture emerges, so too does Duro's own history, a story bound up in events of the war for independence of the early 1990s when Gost was surrounded by Serbian forces. The war took its toll on many families, including Duro's own, as shells were lobbed at houses and snipers took potshots at innocent people. It also brought out a simmering resentment which turned ordinary people against their neighbours, leading to unspeakable acts of violence.
The truly awful nature of these events is slowly revealed, interwoven with the experiences of the English family, and the restoration of the blue house, which becomes a stark reminder of things the people of Gost would rather were left dead and buried. Everyone except Duro, that is.
While he is an easy character to scoff at - Laura's husband calls Duro her 'pocket Romeo' because of his short stature, and he is certainly vain with his daily regime of chin-ups, press-ups and stomach crunches - Dura turns out to be a real hero. Perhaps it is the tragic events that have dogged his life, but instead of becoming bitter, or running away, Duro stands watch, waiting and daring to remember.
Animatta Forna has written a wonderful novel about the lingering effects of war, what it can do to a community and how individuals carry on with their lives afterwards. She is a stunning writer, creating the place of Gost in the reader's imagination, a summer landscape full of flowers, odours and heat. The serious nature of the story leaves you wanting to know more about events that you may dimly remember being played out on TV screens twenty years ago. It is as if, like Duro, she is daring you not to forget. On top of this The Hired Man is a terrific piece of storytelling - I found it really hard to put down and will be eager to read Forna's previous books.