The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic,

Without planning it, I have just read one book after another set in Croatia, one set in the fictitious village of Gost on the mainland the other on a small island.  Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man and Courtney Angela Brkic’s The First Rule of Swimming portray different lives and paths, but complement each other in portraying contemporary life, where the past is ever-present and no one likes to speak of those who are absent.

First RuleThis is the first work of Courtney Angela Brkic I have read though I see she has published a noted collection of short stories entitled Stillness and a memoir The Stone Fields, short-listed for the Freedom of Expression Award.

The prologue of The First Rule of Swimming starts on the fictitious island of Rosmarina, Croatia in 1982 when 8-year-old Magdalena is reading a letter from her cousin Katarina, a letter that has clearly been opened and resealed.

“Katarina’s family had left when Magdalena was only two, a shadowy period that she tried hard to recall. But she was never sure if the faces she sometimes pictured were real or simply her imagination.”

When she writes the return postcard, her grandfather writes one as well, gluing it to hers – a message – to which they receive a cryptic reply about a cat, which causes Magdalena some confusion and her grandfather immense physical pain.

The book setting then moves to the present, with Magdalena taking care of her grandparents, her grandfather now in a stroke induced coma, but refusing to let go. Though most of the island’s youth leave to find jobs on the mainland, her strong connection to the island keeps her there pursuing a teaching career and ignoring any pressure to do otherwise, even at the expense of what seems like pending spinsterhood.

NY harbourBut when her sister Jadranka leaves for New York and disappears without trace a few weeks after her arrival, she leaves the security of the island to go after her, followed soon after by her estranged mother.

“It was as if a cord connected her to Rosmarina, and only for Jadranka did she have the will to fight against it. This attachment was both habit and biology. In her childhood a researcher had studied the islanders’ sense of direction. It was a capability he explained in terms of the Inuit in the far-off Arctic, who could find their way even through blizzards.

“It’s a rare genetic gift,” he had explained to her grandfather. The scientist had concluded that not everyone possessed the skill – which he termed innate nautical orientation – but she belonged squarely to the group that did. “

Behind these events is the slow revelation of what happened to certain members of the family including the girl’s Uncle and the truth about their father, something their mother has always kept from them and that appears to be connected to Jadranka’s disappearance. It reveals an era of suspicion, denunciation, false imprisonment and vendetta. Life was dangerous for anyone associated with those who held opinions not deemed favourable.

“Grudges went back generations, and children were judged by things their parents had done, some of them years before their birth. Small wonder, Magdalena sometimes thought, that her sister preferred places where nobody knew her.”

The two girls know little of the past, but will come to learn how much it has affected their present, the journey to New York will help them find answers.

It is a compelling read that like The Hired Man, will leave the reader curious and disturbed about the recent past and that tendency for humanity to brush things under the carpet as if they never happened.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna has written two previous novels, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones both set in Sierra Leone where she was raised. She has also written an investigative memoir delving into the political events around the seizure and execution of her father on false charges of treason entitled The Devil that Danced on the Water that I plan to read.

After reading The Memory of Love last year and seeing her interviewed, it is clear she is a writer of courage and I knew I would be reading whatever she produced next.

The Hired ManJust as with The Memory of Love which is set in the aftermath of conflict of that disconcerting type where civilians mysteriously disappear and terrible unspoken things happen, in The Hired Man, we find ourselves following in the footsteps of 46-year-old Duro, an unmarried man living alone with his two dogs, his sisters and mother having already fled whatever horror occurred in their home town of Gost, a fictitious town caught between opposing sides in the former Yugoslavia.

“They have taken up a position south of the town opposite the army in the north. In between lies Gost. The army want to reach the coast but we stand in their way. Each side has roadblocks you have to pass through, on the road north and on the rods south out of Gost. Same questions, but different answers to each.”

For much of the early part of the book, we don’t know what has happened there, but Forna a somehow infuses the story with that sense of knowing yet not knowing, creating an underlying, slow building tension and unwillingness to trust any of the characters we come across. The events may be long in the past, but their memories feel as though they are not far from the surface and that anything could happen. And strange things do occur.

Into this undercurrent arrive an English woman Laura and her teenage son and daughter. Seemingly oblivious to the effect of their presence on the local villagers, they hire Duro and set about making improvements to the home they have purchased from with a view to doing it up and selling it on.

“I realised I’d upset the balance of thing. That I was a hired man and she was my employer made Laura relaxed in having me around the house. A mistake to take a day away without explanation: it made her feel she wasn’t the boss.”

Territory that made up the former Yugoslavia

Territory that made up the former Yugoslavia

We read the story through the eyes of the hired man Duro and interestingly Forna has chosen to narrate the story around Laura and her children in the past tense while Duro’s reflection on the past are written in the present even though they occurred many years before. It has that effect of making the past feel more present and could be how she succeeds in creating that tension, we read about the past as if it happened only recently.

“Vinca Pavic is an angry woman and her anger shows in the set of her teeth, the lines around her mouth into which her lipstick bleeds, the way she folds her arms. When she laughs it is to mock and in this she finds an ally in her son. But Anka, Anka was born with joy in her soul, to which they feel she has no right. Behind it all, as with so many things in life and in death, lies envy. In the end it gets the better of them.”

The Hired Man is a brilliant, quiet portrayal of the aftermath of conflict on a community, it goes some way towards explaining the meaning behind the silences, about why some can’t bear to stay and others can not bear to leave. It reminds us that nothing is forgotten and is a warning to outsiders to take care, that ignorance or indifference are sometimes deemed sufficient to warrant punishment.

Additional Reading:  Aminatta Forna: A Life in Writing provides excellent background reading and context to the book.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.