I have been thoroughly manipulated by Aminatta Forna’s writing skills. The Hired Man is her novel about a Croatian man named Duro who feels compelled to tell the reader about Gost—his native village—during the Yugoslav civil war and its aftermath. Duro is the “hired man.” A hunter, carpenter, painter, auto mechanic and protector; never married and childless, Duro spends his days in the elements with his dogs in the country. Occasionally he sits in a village watering hole to drink a few beers or glasses of wine, to look at folks and listen; he is never there to hold long conversations or flirt with women. His mother and a sister are still alive but he rarely sees them.
Laura, a British woman, arrives in Gost with her daughter, Grace, and son, Matthew, and they take up residence in a home whose past galvanizes a mess of memories. Duro serves as the griot of those untold stories.
I wouldn’t normally be interested in spending so much time with such a solitary fellow, but, like I mentioned earlier, Aminatta Forna has skills. This narrative is written in the voice of Duro, and Forna knows him so well and has such precise command of composition, that Duro’s character never suffers breaks or intrusions of the writer’s voice. Duro’s world is one of the outdoors: he is unfazed by weather conditions, mud, blood, sweet or sour earthiness. An experienced hunter and marksman, Duro understands the cathartic aspect of “dressing” a dead animal. He is fluent in the language of his ecosystem: buddleia, flotsam; “a polje of karst limestone.” The pace and rhythm of the writing feel as natural and unhurried as his thought process, and I get a sense of Duro’s masculinity and his moods, his native tenderness as well as his understated strength and violence. I guess I am exposing my own prejudices regarding female writers’ way of writing male characters and “their” worlds (and vice-versa) so please forgive me. Duro feels to me like what I would have called [before now?] a man’s man.
A few years ago I began reading books written by women of the African diaspora who weren’t African American: Sefi Atta, Edwidge Danticat, Chibundu Onuzo, Buchi Emecheta, Marguerite Abouet, Esi Edugyan, Lola Shoneyin, Kopano Matlwa, Jamaica Kincaid, Yejide Kilanko, Taiye Selasi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chinelo Okparanta, and Marie NDiaye (just to name 16!!!—I know! I couldn’t help myself listing them all! Lol!) Needless to say, other authors were waiting in the queue and Aminatta Forna was one of those. I think I had intended to read her Commonwealth Writers’ Award-winning novel, The Memory of Love, first, but on a recent trip to the library, The Hired Man was propped-up in plain view just for me: “Pick me up, Leslie! Take me home with you! Today!” (said the book cover). And you might not know this about me but I’m one of those greedy readers who owns and buys hardcover books, paperbacks, new, used, and discontinued, downloads e-books, and borrows from the library! Really? Yes, and yet I’m always replenishing a never-diminishing supply. Sounds like an addiction, huh? Oh well, I’ve digressed enough….
….But the reason why I went down that lane is to say that I think I had already made an assumption that in my first encounter with Aminatta Forna’s work, I would be reading something woman-centered and featuring Sierra Leone and possibly, Britain. I didn’t anticipate a middle-aged Croatian man’s point of view. Do you—like me—have conscious or subconsious ideas about the kinds of stories you expect certain writers to deliver?
The actual story in The Hired Man is on a slow-burn. It doesn’t entertain with thrilling ascensions and dramatic descensions. A tension is sustained throughout, and yet it never explodes. I was surprised by the affect its subtleties had on me. When I imagine war, it is constant and claustrophobic with extremes in violence, terrorism, destruction, and heroism. But Duro’s narrative illustrates how elements of war are woven-in with what is “regular” and “ordinary;” and how long those elements continue to smolder long after “the big event” has passed.
I listed Aminatta Forna as a writer of the African diaspora, but maybe I’ve been presumptuous. She is a daughter of a Sierra Leonean father and a Scottish mother and currently makes her home in London. According to her bio, Forna was raised in Sierra Leone and spent time in Iran, Thailand, and Zambia. Her experience has been very international. Still, had she been born in Detroit, Michigan, and never left there, what makes me—as a reader—think I know what places, characters, and subjects she ought to be writing about? And so I am hopeful that my encounter with this author and this book will remind me to anticipate and seek out a broader range of imaginative power and well-crafted storytelling from writers with African blood in their history. I suspect that my subconsious expectations have not been as generous as they could be.