The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

Trigger warning for violence towards animals.

Aminatta Forna’s tense novel, The Hired Man, shows us why the saying is just “revenge is a dish best served cold” and not “revenge is a dish best served cold and bewildering.” Our protagonist, Duro, is a patient man. He’s been waiting a very long time to tell the people who wronged him just how much he wants to hurt them. He’s also not a monologuer, so when the time comes, it’s hard to say what his targets are supposed to feel when his plan finally springs into action. I know I’m being hard on this book right out of the gate, but that’s because I was really enjoying the ride right up until the end. Take what I say with a grain of salt: I didn’t understand the ending, possibly because I was reading too fast to take in the important details.

Our story takes place in Gost, Croatia. The town used to be an important waypoint back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those days are long behind this rural backwater now. The Yugoslav Wars pushed the town even further into irrelevance. People still live there, mostly because it’s where they and their families have always lived. And Gost is quiet, mostly because the people did things to each other during the Wars that no one wants to talk about. The most excitement in years turns up in the form of an English woman and her two children, after the woman buys a house that is very important to Duro. Seeing the old Pavić house occupied after so many years shocks Duro for a moment. Then he goes up and introduces himself to Laura with an offer to help her fix the place up.

While Duro busily puts things at the Pavić house back to rights, Forna takes us into his past. We see his friendship with the Pavić children, especially daughter Anka—and also how his friendship with the son Krešimir goes sour as the boy’s moods grow violent and erratic. The three children grow up in the last decades of Yugoslavia, until Duro is forced to leave. The more we see, the more it makes sense that Duro is a solitary man, living in a former pig shed with his two dogs, dedicatedly putting together the home of his absent lost love and best friend.

It’s only later that Forna reveals to us how the war came to Gost, even though we all know that devastating and sectarian violence is coming. As that tension builds, another tension starts to form as Duro comes closer to finishing his restoration of the Pavić house. Strange things start to happen around Gost that remind Krešimir and the repugnant owner of the town’s only bar, Fabjan, of the terrible things that happened there so many years ago. There are no outright accusations. Instead, Duro’s narratives slowly show us who did what to whom. It’s left to us to decide if anyone deserves punishment or revenge, and if it’s fair to manipulate others to unwittingly be pawns in Duro’s long revenge.

This is an extremely well-written book, for the most part. It’s incredibly atmospheric and the character development is among the best I’ve seen. Before I consign this book to the “tried it” pile, I think I’ll need to go back and at least read the last third again. Resisting the urge to rush and reading slowly might make me change this book from a three to a four or five out of five.

Reinhardt’s Garden, by Mark Haber

Beware of false prophets. Especially ones who are obsessed with melancholy. And are kind of a megalomaniac. And are consuming massive amounts of cocaine. And who has decided to mount an expedition up the Rio de la Plata in Uruguay. Unfortunately for the nameless narrator in Mark Haber’s Reinhardt’s Garden, no one told him to be wary of any of these things.

The narrator of this novella met Jacov Reinhardt at a tuberculosis sanatorium. The narrator is a hypochondriac and more than a little suggestible, so he immediately falls under the spell of the completely absurd Jacov. Because the narrator has no apparent sense of irony, he faithfully transcribes Jacov’s pompous musing about melancholy, his rivalries, and all the rest of his master’s nonsense without commentary. Readers who are savvier than the narrator (and who on earth isn’t?) can clearly see what the narrator is missing: the fact that Jacov is more full of shit than a Christmas goose.

Readers who enjoy intellectual absurdity will enjoy Reinhardt’s Garden. Interested readers should be prepared for the experience of falling into a fevered (maybe, he is a hypochondriac) man’s memories told out of order in one long paragraph. When I realized that this book really was an 168-page long paragraph, I considered giving up on this book because I found the literary gimmick mildly annoying on principle. Still, it made me chuckle enough that I kept going, just to see how far Jacov would go into his bizarre, cocaine-fueled obsessions—and how far the narrator would follow him. I just had to know if the narrator would ever wise up. And if you’d like to know if he does, you’ll need to read this delirious tale yourself.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Hotel Tito, by Ivana Bodrožić

34013791Ivana Bodrožić’s Hotel Tito closely follows the author’s own life. Like her nameless narrator, Bodrožić was a young girl when Yugoslavia broke up in a bloody civil war. And, like her nameless narrator, she also spent years in displaced persons’ housing, waiting for either a new home in Zagreb or the all clear to return to her hometown, Vukovar. Unlike many other survivor stories I have read, Hotel Tito is not an inspirational or heroic tale. The characters here are resolutely ordinary, fractious, and ineffectual. Such ordinary people do a lot to make this novella a feel more real than those other survivor stories because they create a sense of how disruptive, chaotic, and bloody the Yugoslav Civil War was.

We meet the nameless narrator of Hotel Tito when she is nine and already on the road. She doesn’t seem to really know why. All she knows is that everyone in her family, except her father, had to leave Vukovar. (The family never learns what happens to the narrator’s father, but it is assumed that he died in the Vukovar Hospital Massacre.) After a brief stint squatting in a Zagreb apartment, the family is relocated to the eponymous hotel, a repurposed Holiday Inn that was used to house hundreds of refugees from Vukovar and other embattled places in what would become Croatian territory.

240px-Vukovar-watertower-after-war

The Vukovar Water Tower was not repaired after the war so that it would be a reminder of the city’s destruction
(Image via Wikicommons)

Hotel Tito covers the five years the family spent waiting in that hotel. We watch as the narrator’s brother grows into a frustrated young man who can’t help his family. We also see the narrator’s mother succumb to depression. Meanwhile, our narrator, who barely seems to remember her pre-war life, struggles to fit into young teenage life among refugees and locals. She is an almost stereotypical teenager, to the point where I was frequently aggravated by her selfishness and lack of empathy.

As she grows older, the narrator slowly learns to observe the people around her. She never quite loses her self-serving ways, but she tells us more about what others are going through. She also learns to focus so that we readers aren’t bounced around like a pinball as her attention shifts from diversion to diversion. While she eventually gets a good education, the narrator never asks why all this happened to her and her family. The narrator is anything but a reflective person.

Hotel Tito ends abruptly, so that the entire novella feels like dropping into and out of the narrator and her family’s life. For some readers, this abruptness, the narrator’s shortcomings, and the lack of any hint of heroism, will make this a difficult read. But then, I think that’s part of the point. War is not about heroism. Being a refugee is not about being a survivor who inspires others. Being a refugee is about fleeing for your life and losing home and family. This book is about the long, anxious turmoil of not having a home or lodestar anymore.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.