The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu, is a pretty brilliant book. I will say, though, that it was hard for me to feel like it was mine to review. Written by a Zimbabwean author now living in England, it is a delicious little slice of aspirational working-class life in the “big city” of Harare. It is also crammed with Zimbabwean political references (a triumphant heroine styles Madame Presidentress Mugabe’s hair; bribes fly thick and fast to get things done), scraps of dialogue in Shona, and a very real message about how the media-connected world views African versus white beauty.
I feel there are aspects of the book it’s not for me to critique; I am not a person of color, and my only literary view of modern Africa, unless you count Things Fall Apart, is Alexander McCall Smith’s. (He ain’t a person of color, either.) I don’t go to the hairdresser, as it’s neither my personal ritual nor my cultural baggage; but if I did, I wouldn’t have to experience chemical relaxers, braided extensions, or Rhodesian-versus-Zimbabwean tensions; I wouldn’t have to ponder one of the novel’s most central questions, that of whether it’s better to look beautiful as you are, or to look like a white woman.
This slim, imperfect, resonant work (resonant in English, as I read it; I’m unsure whether the work was the author’s own English, or presented in translation; if it is non-native English, I commend the author’s choices even if at times the vocabulary rings simplistic) is the story of Vimbai, who, when we first see her, works in Mrs. Khumalo’s select hairdressing salon, does her best to dodge the bill collectors, takes indifferent care of her daughter, and doesn’t need a man in her life, ever.
Vimbai is, in fact, the best hairdresser in the best salon in Harare. It’s when a man comes into her life that the ball really gets rolling. Dumisani is young and charismatic. He listens to annoying music, charms everyone, and soon gets under Vimbai’s skin in ways good and bad. He shares her
house, invites her to meet his family, and is Vimbai’s idea of a conversationalist and a gentleman. He also usurps her position at Mrs. Khumalo’s salon, poaches her clients, and starts a hairdressing revolution when Mrs. Khumalo’s distinguished guests of color suddenly leave her salon looking like Toni Braxton, not Meryl Streep.
The novel’s heavy questions of beauty, masculinity, and “place,” in an evolving traditional society that’s gained access to the internet, are swept along in a bubbling rush of daily life and local color. These mostly stand in for a plot, but that’s not a bad thing. If you enjoy Mma Ramotswe, you will definitely get a kick out of Vimbai and the nearly-perfect Dumisani.
If Dumi’s perfect, Vimbai is not. Our narrator is, if not shallow, very aware of the allure of material things. She longs to trade up — from a rabbit-ear TV to a flat screen, from mealie meal to chicken, from her daughter’s father to the dashing Dumi. Not all her actions are particularly attractive (or forgiveable, for that matter). But by the end of the book, I really cared about Vimbai. I would read her sequel.
From my perspective, and I beg forgiveness in advance for potentially “othering the narrative,” The Hairdresser of Harare was a riveting, lightning-fast read, certainly worth looking into. The last, dark, shocking “secret” — which is telegraphed pretty loudly if you’re used to looking
for certain signals in stories; I guess there are some codes that transcend language and culture, and I guess we pick up pretty fast how humans switch them — seems like it’s rushed over, like it’s too much of a horror for the narrator (the author?) to even contemplate; we never find out how Vimbai feels about Dumi’s revelation and her part in it, only that she loves Dumi and will never be able to imagine her life without him. Maybe that’s all right. We’ve been looking at Vimbai’s world through her eyes all along; maybe the note the book ends on is the only note we need to hear.
Title: The Hairdresser of Harare
Author: Tendai Huchu
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication: Weaver Press (October 12, 2010)
Price: $8.99 (Kindle, Nook), $21.95 (paperback)
Author’s Website: http://www.tendaihuchu.com/