It is not hard to see why Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare was one of The Observer’s top ten African books of 2012. Huchu immediately draws his reader in with his snappy, darkly humourous writing style, reminiscent of others in the newer generation of African writers such as Zakes Mda. Huchu has also chosen a topic which is hot in the international press at the moment, that of homosexuality in Africa. However, this book is actually more than a study of views on sexuality, it is a successful, almost satirical look at modern Zimbabwe.
The story revolves around Vimbai, the narrator, a successful Harare hairdresser, and her evolving relationship with Dumisani, her professional rival and unconventional love interest. The unlikely and complex relationship between the two unfolds against a backdrop of hyperinflation, food shortages and expanding graveyards, a society where buying a bag of sugar is like “taking part in a drugs deal”. Huchu adeptly weaves political criticism into his narrative with a dry humour which is admirable, and he conveys the way that extreme violence can become barely worthy of comment in a world where it has become so commonplace.
Interestingly, and perhaps intentionally, The Hairdresser of Harare seems almost to mimic Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but with a far less naïve and romanticised view of Africa, whilst also engaging with the political in a way McCall Smith does not. Huchu, like McCall Smith, has chosen to relate his story through a female protagonist, and uses a flashback structure to tell her life story. Though Huchu’s work eliminates one of the problematic elements of McCall Smith’s work through the fact he is of the same race and nationality as his narrator, the issue of a male author writing from a female perspective remains. This is not particularly jarring, and there is an authenticity to the narrative voice, but it is interesting that Huchu chose to tell his story from Vimbai’s, rather than Dumisani’s, viewpoint, or indeed from both perspectives. Dumisani as a consequence remains voiceless.
With this praise advanced, it is disappointing to note that Huchu lets himself down with a somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic ending which almost seems as though he lost impetus towards the end of the work. Given the strength of the novel generally, this is doubly disappointing. Whilst this does not detract from the novels overall value, it impacts substantially on the final satisfaction of the reader.
That said this book is well worth reading for the intelligent and often witty way it handles its descriptions of contemporary Zimbabwe, touching on issues of financial ruin, political corruption, and problematic independence, the irresponsibility of the international press, land conflict, class, race and tribal divisions. Huchu has taken on a big job and done it well. The one issue he handles less well however is the one he has placed as the central theme of the novel, namely homosexuality. The circumspect way he deals with the topic throughout the majority of the book initially comes across as a plot device designed to mirror the way that gay men (and women) have to hide their sexuality in societies where it has been criminalised. However, Huchu never resolves this issue, nor brings it fully into the light, instead glossing over much of what one feels would be necessary for a satisfactory conclusion to his narrative. Perhaps ironically Huchu seems to display a more empathetic and developed understanding of his female character whilst much about Dumisani feels contrived.
Once again, it bears repeating that despite this complaint, this is a valuable, insightful and entertaining book, which is well worth the read. As Huchu’s only novel to date, this is a valiant first effort and shows all the promise of future potential in which the “teething” problems of this work will surely be eliminated.