I admit, coming into The Hairdresser of Harare, I didn’t know much about Zimbabwe beyond its geographical location. Sure, I had some half-formed assumptions and expectations, but nothing upon which to confidently rely in exploring the world Tendai Huchu has so skilfully portrayed.
Like any book that tackles social and political prejudices, this is a dark, heavy, often challenging read, but the language and the vibrancy of the writing lifts us above the world we’re reading about. In a sense, you almost want to be dragged down by stilted, heavy, academic prose . . . to suffer alongside the characters . . . but then the book becomes more about your experience, and less about the story. I think Huchu has done an admirable job here of balancing entertainment with education, making us want to not only care about what we’re reading, but to enjoy the read itself.
Had this just been the story of a gay hairdresser, living and working in an oppressive society, it would have been an interesting read. For those of us raised on North American television and film, the concept of a gay hairdresser is hardly a novel one, but one most likely to be explored either for comic relief, or to reinforce a stereotype. Here the concept is both novel and significant. Dumisani is a well-rounded, exceedingly likeable – and, more importantly, admirable character. Hardly a stereotype, he’s an outcast, with his sexuality a secret to most (including, for a time, the reader), but immediately recognizable once it’s revealed.
What makes this something more than just an interesting read is the complex and delightful presence of Vimbai. Hardly perfect, she serves to develop Dumi’s character, and to provide some intimate insights into the controversy of his homosexuality. She’s a strong character on her own, likeable (in a slightly exasperating way), amusing, and cautiously friendly. She seemed a bit too oblivious to the fact that Dumi is gay, but given the culture in which we’re so expertly placed, and the discretion with which he leads his life, it’s an easily forgivable aspect of the story.
Overall, this is a lovely novel to read, with the casual use of local slang and phrasings serving to enhance, rather than confuse, the experience. We get a lot of colour through the writing itself, and the narrative voice is such that we can ‘hear’ the culture, without the intrusion of an interpreter to explain or offer any unnecessary asides.
If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s the ending. While I knew going in that this would not be a happily-ever-after story, the power of the ending still unsettled me. I think part of the reason is that it seems such an abrupt end, without any of the usual cut-away or wrap-up scenes so often used in Western literature to soften the blow. Having said that, such scenes would have been entirely out of place here – the ending should be unsettling and slightly unsatisfactory, in order to validate everything that has come before.
If you’re open to a different read, a literate story that explores difficult ideas and opinions, this is a book that’s well worth the read. It’s a refreshing addition to the bookshelf, and one that will leave you both entertained and enlightened.