The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


The Hairdresser of Harare
"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.


17 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

A hair salon is the perfect place to set a novel full of drama. Sorry the ending wasn't great.

zibilee said...

In some ways, this book reminds me of Minding Ben, as some of the same issues and themes are addressed in both books, but I admit that they are very different books, and have little in common plot-wise. It sounds like this one was both a captivating read for you, and one that disappointed you a little bit. I need to see if I can grab this book and see what I think about it. Very thoughtful and perceptive review today. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Aarti Nagaraju said...

Wow, this sounds fantastic. Great review, Aths! I love the cover, too. I really like when books make big statements about the world at large by focusing on a tiny society.

Sally Sapphire said...

I had a chance to read this last summer. I found it a dark, heavy, often challenging read, but it was also a lovely novel to read, with the casual use of local slang and phrasings serving to enhance, rather than confuse, the experience. A lot of colour was conveyed through the writing itself, and the narrative voice was such that we could ‘hear’ the culture, without the intrusion of an interpreter to explain or offer any unnecessary asides.


The power of the ending definitely unsettled me, especially its abruptness, but I think it worked. While I missed the usual cut-away or wrap-up scenes, I felt like the ending should have been unsettling and slightly unsatisfactory, in order to validate everything that came before.

softdrink said...

I just now noticed the cover...all of the people and the scissors in the hair. I love it!

Helen Murdoch said...

I think I am going to add this one to my TBR list, it sounds intriguing!

Veens said...

Sounds very interesting! And I really like the story! Adding this to my wishlist :)

Tina Reed said...

What an interesting premise. Sort of sounds like a story that has been told before but not in this exact way. LOVE that cover.

Athira / Aths said...

It certainly is! I've enjoyed the few books set in settings like a salon, and they can be quite rich in character portrayals.

Athira / Aths said...

It only disappointed me very little. On the whole, I enjoyed it a lot and I would happily recommend it to anyone.

Athira / Aths said...

I enjoyed that aspect of the book. A salon may appear to be a minor unpolitical part of a society, but it actually sees a lot of people of mixed interests and beliefs.

Athira / Aths said...

Isn't that great? I forgot to mention in my review that this book has one of the best covers I have ever come across.

Athira / Aths said...

It is! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did or even more!

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! I hope you enjoy it!

Athira / Aths said...

That cover is just so fabulous! One of the best I've come across to date.

DamonTolles said...

My mother has it lucky, she says that she never has any problems with the cut or look that she asks for whenever she goes to beauty salons in Perth. She tells me that the people there value her patronage and they have a blast gossiping about everything.

DamonTolles said...

My mother has it lucky, she says that she never has any problems with the cut or look that she asks for whenever she goes to beauty salons in Perth. She tells me that the people there value her patronage and they have a blast gossiping about everything.