"Your hair was set beautifully, but the style she's given you is not for you."
My heart was pounding with rage. It had taken me an hour and a half to do that style and he dared to say that I'd got it wrong. The customer is always king. I'd done the style she asked for.
Vimbai is the hairdresser at a well-known salon in Harare, where she has self-proclaimed herself to be the best one in town. She is definitely one of the best hairdressers - the owner of the salon prefers Vimbai handling the important customers. Even otherwise, the salon sees many customers who would rather have her dress their hair than anyone else. One day, when a man named Dumisani comes calling at the salon, in response to an ad calling for applicants, Vimbai's reign as the queen hairdresser is threatened.
As simple as that summary sounds, The Hairdresser of Harare is anything but simple or trivial. Set against the backdrop of the politics within a salon, there are several elements that are at work here. At the outset, it is about Vimbai's acclimatization to her change in status within the salon. She doesn't take nicely to Dumisani's arrival at the salon, and how he 'steals' away most of her customers. In addition, when he gets promoted over her despite how much longer she had worked at the salon, she feels all her dreams slipping away from her. Although I initially felt annoyed with Vimbai because of her vain thoughts and how much she prejudiced herself against Dumisani, I realized that she was just protecting herself from the changes resulting from Dumisani's arrival, changes that admittedly haven't been nice to her.
In addition to the hairdresser's battles, there are several other pivotal things going on. Early on, it becomes obvious that one of the characters has a huge secret and is trying hard not to let it out or appear suspicious. Although this isn't a book that will leave you knowing a whole lot more about Zimbabwe, and its characters could have been from any country (mostly), there are some essential facts that the reader does learn, such as its deadly intolerance of gays, the immensely high unemployment rate, issues with providing basic needs such as electricity and safety.
I haven't read too many books dealing with gay literature, but I liked what I read here. The handling of the gay "issue" felt delicate and realistic to me, especially set against a volatile background, where people are yet to come of age in accepting sexual freedom. I wasn't really aware of the book's gay theme until it came up, and I felt that the surprise worked pleasantly, since I didn't know what was going to come. Although knowing about it in advance doesn't spoil the book since a lot of the book's strength is in its characters and their growth arcs, not knowing about it definitely keeps the suspense going.
The Hairdresser of Harare is a pretty quick book to read and I found it engaging enough. I wasn't too impressed by the way it ended but I'm not able to point out exactly what felt wrong. I did like Vimbai's coming of age because she did go through something harrowing and there is nothing that can change you sooner than something very tragic. I just felt an overload of stream-of-consciousness towards the end that made me feel that she was trying too hard.
I received this ebook for free for review from the author.