The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu is the story of a hairstylist in Zimbabwe. Sisi Vimbai works at Ms Khumalo’s salon. She is one of the best in the business and attracts top clientele, but is arrogant, shows up late for work and disparages the people around her.
Sisi’s self-importance starts to waver with the arrival of a new male employee. Duminsani is talented, well-spoken and attractive. He charms his boss and fellow staff and soon takes away Sisi’s best clients. When Dumisani is appointed shop manager, Sisi finds herself on shaky ground, especially knowing she is a single mother struggling to survive in a crumbling economy.
Instead of fanning rivalry with the newcomer, Susi changes tact and decides to befriend Dumisani. The plan works so well, they become good workmates. Dumisani moves into Sisi’s house as a tenant and eventually both quit the jobs to start a hair salon business. And though Sisi mistrusts men after a lifetime of heartache and is estranged from her own family, she begins to harbour ideas of a possible future together.
But from early on, she suspects something is amiss with Dumisani. There are unexplained disappearances. When he takes her to meet his wealthy family, he introduces her as his girlfriend, even though their relationship has never been intimate.
Then Sisi discovers what Dumi is hiding. She feels betrayed and angry and she plots to take revenge. Yet she is conflicted because she genuinely cares for him, and as her backstory is revealed, you start to root for her. As the book moves towards the end, you perceive that a bittersweet finish is coming.
This is a humorous and sad story about secrets, lies and unrequited hopes. Huchu, 36, is a long-time resident of Scotland but captures well the political mood and toughness of everyday life in his homeland. Through a collection of hardworking ordinary people, we are exposed to numerous stories at play.
Huchu highlights the problems of modern Zimbabwe: the failure of national leadership, unemployment, social prejudices, sexual identity and hair salon clients who want to look like white women.
Modern women are still battling old-fashioned cultural attitudes towards marriage and inheritance. We see the vast divide between the haves and have-nots, the scarcity of public resources and the likes of Sisi buying sugar on the black market. Yet the narrative does not get into a heavy political analysis, which keeps the story focused on the personal themes.
The setting is familiar because the Khumalo salon could be in any contemporary African city. However, there were a few events that made you realise that while the protagonist is female, the story is written by a man. The characters are relatable and the storyline is straightforward and the language is easy flowing, though some of the dialogue gets lengthy.
The Hairdresser of Harare is Huchu’s first novel. It was a finalist for the Caine Prize and has been translated into several languages
Star Rating: 4/5