Sometimes you read a book which leaves you asking questions about yourself, your own prejudices, and how they affect the way you read. Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare did just that for me. Ostensibly it is a novel which is a warm, evocative and humorous story of the relationship between two of Zimbabwe’s most sought after hairstylists and how their initial, admittedly one sided, competition changes to become an, admittedly one-sided, partnership.
But it is the writing about people and place, and the cultural and social politics of both, that raise this novel above the ordinary, and had me questioning my own point of view. Situations which are still serious but hardly surprising occurances in Scotland take on greater danger set against the background of contemporary Zimbabwe.
Vimbai, the narrator, is a vibrant, confident and talented single-mother who has been mostly used and abused by men until she meets Dumisani, who appears too good to be true. Dumisani seems to be just that little bit more in every way to Vimbai. More charming, courteous, and, to her dismay, a better hair stylist. He is beautifully dressed, spoken and mannered, and perhaps most surprisingly, is single. All the women love him, and flock to get their hair cut and styled by him and he soon becomes the talk of Harare.
One of the things which makes the novel such an interesting read is how you react to that initial description of Dumisani. On the cover blurb it says that The Hairdresser of Harare ‘…confounds stereotypes’, and it certainly does when it comes to those I had of Zimbabwe. However, I found my own more homegrown stereotypes being at least partly fulfilled by the characters, particularly where Dumisani is concerned. As a result, right from the beginning, it was clear to me what others in the book, particularly Vimbai, could not see.
But as the novel unfolded I realised that my initial indifference to their relationship came from my judging the plight of these characters as someone for who their situation would not be the biggest of deals. What Huchu does is to make clear just how difficult life has been, and remains, for the two central characters, not necessarily because of individual oppression, although that exists, but from widely held cultural beliefs which mean that the two will be not only be condemned by many in their society, but possibly attacked, cast out and even ‘punished’.
Even when you know how a central aspect of a novel is going to turn out, it doesn’t mean that the journey to that revelation is diminished. Take Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, where we are told at the beginning of the novel that the narrator of Lise dies by the end. That doesn’t stop it being one of the best examinations of the human condition you could wish to read. As with The Hairdresser Of Harare, what may be revealed to the reader takes on a greater significance as the story unfolds for the other characters who are not so privileged.
By taking a situation that could happen anywhere, and writing characters who you quickly come to think of as individuals rather than any stereotypes you may bring, Huchu has written a book which introduces readers to a country most will only have knowledge of from media reports and TV images. Love, hate, prejudice, history, culture and class are all examined through the lives of Vimbai and Dumisani, their friends, and their families, and if you are like me you will finish the book knowing more about Zimbabwe, but also about yourself.