Croatian man helps family understand pain of war

By Walt Braun

Duro Kolak is Croatian, a lifelong resident of the small town of Gost. Like others in the town, Duro has seen things he can’t forget, done things he can’t undo and lost things he cannot get back.

Duro is the hired man and the storyteller in “The Hired Man,” which takes place in 2007 when a British woman and her two children occupy a vacant, rundown house that once held some importance for him. He refers to it simply as the blue house and when he drops by to say hello, he finds himself helping with them with their water pump.

The British woman is Laura, whose husband, Conor, who actually bought the house, is otherwise occupied. Her children, both teenagers, are Grace, who is more interesting than graceful, and Matthew, a moody, disrespectful adolescent who Laura spoils almost unashamedly.

Duro, in his mid-40s when Laura moves in, is more than a handyman. He spent several years in the army, lived along the coast for a couple of years, has hunted since he was a boy and will tinker with just about any problem until he solves it. Among the projects at Laura’s house is a damaged mosaic that Grace has discovered and wants to restore.

Duro, whose own household consists of two dogs, at times seems like part of their family. He tells them about Gost and its people, and when he realizes how bored and friendless Grace and Matthew are, he offers to take them to a watering hole he visited as a child. Laura, who tells Duro that the house is to be an investment, seems oblivious to the fact that less than two decades ago the people of Gost were at war. More than once Duro observes that Laura is good at creating her own reality. She marvels at fields teeming with flowers and doesn’t understand when Duro tells her those fields once held crops. And when he gives her specific directions to certain places, she has no idea he’s steering her away from parts of the countryside that still contain land mines.

The author does a good job of shifting the reader back and forth from Duro’s childhood and adulthood, tracing some of the relationships he’s had his entire life. Among these were Kresimir, a boyhood friend and hunting partner who became an enemy, and Kresimir’s younger sister Anka, who tagged along with her brother and Duro and who became the love of Duro’s life.

Another holdover from the past is Fabjan, who owns a tavern in Gost and has a knack for choosing the winning side.

Without knowing it, Laura and her children awakened some of the memories — and the hostilities — of Gost. There was a time when hostile troops lingered just outside of town and residents paid a dear price for their friendships.

Duro endured his share of grief in those days, and inflicted some as well. Yet he survived to coexist with people he would remain wary of for the rest of his days.

Duro seems to know that Laura and her children make some of the townspeople uncomfortable. Yet he takes in fixing up an old auto and encouraging Laura, wearing a striking red hat, to drive the car into Gost because of the reaction he knows it will cause.

It is one of the ways he has of reminding those who’ve taken so much from him that he will not yield.

The author, Aminatta Forna, has written a quietly powerful book, one in which the hint of menace lingers over the sunniest of days, yet one that contains its share of sunny days. Forna knows her craft. A native of Sierra Leone, she also wrote “The Memory of Love,” which won the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book and was a finalist for other awards.

Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.

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