Zimbabwe: cut and dried

I first heard about this novel when I stopped by the African Books Collective’s stall at the London Book Fair last month. Acting as a non-profit distribution outlet for 124 independent African publishers from 21 countries, the organisation has its finger on the pulse of much of the continent’s best contemporary work. So when they tipped me off about Weaver Press in Zimbabwe and recommended The Hairdresser of Harare by new talent Tendai Huchu, I knew I had to give it a go.

The novel follows single mother and hairdresser extraordinaire Vimbai as she struggles to keep her head above water in the swirling currents and rip tides of contemporary Zimbabwe. Challenged by the arrival in the salon of gifted male colleague Dumisani, Vimbai feels her reputation as the city’s best hairdresser slipping and battles to retain her position as ‘Queen Bee’. However, enmity quickly turns to love when Dumisani moves in as her lodger and life would be all-but perfect, were it not for the swelling tide of political unrest and Dumisani’s secret that must eventually tear Vimbai’s dreams apart.

The witty, conversational tone is what makes the book. Reading Vimbai’s comments about the one-upmanship between Harare’s salons, where ‘destroying a competitor’s reputation was all part of the game’, and her top tips on pleasing customers, feels like being an apprentice standing beside her as she initiates you into her art snip by snip. There is a deliciously bitchy, back-room-gossip flavour to some of the observations too, as when Vimbai describes the salon owner and her daughter: ‘neither mother nor daughter had necks. Shame’.

The liveliness of the voice and the strength of the characters mean that Huchu succeeds in foregrounding them against the extraordinary societal collapse that normally dominates the stories we in the West hear about Zimbabwe. While details – such as the bricks of money needed to buy the simplest things, the street children who make a living from selling their places in interminable queues, the corpses disinterred for their clothes, and the packs of tampons regarded as precious gifts – provide stark reminders of the sinister politics at work, the novel is about people who, far from being faceless victims, are determined to live to the full.

When national events do come crashing into the narrative, as in the case of the salon’s supplier and long-term friend Trina who is hounded out of the shop and told ‘Go back to Britain, you white pig’ by a VIP customer, they do so through personal encounters and become all the more powerful for it.

The cultural differences between Britain and Zimbabwe mean that the revelation of Dumisani’s secret (which I’ll try not to ruin for you) will probably have contrasting effects on many readers from the two countries. The book itself corroborates this, with several often very funny comments about the difference in attitudes the two countries have towards the issue.

While this may mean many British readers struggle to empathise with all Vimbai’s thought processes (and may realise the truth long before she does), it does nothing to lessen the fascination of watching her grapple with a social taboo. Huchu handles this nicely with the help of  Vimbai’s ex-philosophy student brother, who enables him to rehearse several involved arguments without them sounding too forced in this otherwise light narrative. Nevertheless, I did find Vimbai’s shift in stance towards the end a little abrupt.

I could also have done with fewer cliffhanger ends to chapters. As it stands, every section ends with a titillating sentence where Huchu leans out of the book, thrusting the next chapter at readers as though he is anxious they will wander off and try something different if he doesn’t keep up the hard sell.

He should trust the strength, wit and engaging power of his work more. The novel is addictive, funny, thought-provoking and brave. If you’re looking for engrossing, funny summer reading with more depth than the average bear, the answer’s right here.

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (Weaver Press, 2010)