Sunday 21 April 2013

Hairdressing and Controversy

Critical Literature Review presents, Nigerian author, Ayodele Olofintuade's review of Tendai Huchu's debut novel ‘The Hairdresser of Harare’. We hope you enjoy reading it.

‘The Hairdresser of Harare’, Tendai Huchu’s debut novel, is about beautiful hair, family and love. It is an easy read which I devoured less than 24hrs after it was handed to me by a friend. I enjoyed it so much that when I got to the end I was faintly surprised.

It is engaging, fun and fast paced. The author manages to convey emotions, thoughts and actions of the characters with as few words as possible, which is an art in itself. It also helps that the chapters are short and to the point. There is no dilly-dallying or the inclusion of long, philosophical passages, which make reading some books a tedious exercise.

The Hairdresser of Harare is a story of deception; a woman’s journey into the inner workings of her mind; of revenge and the havoc that intolerance can wreak on relationships.

Vimbai is a single-parent struggling to pay her bills, and until Dumi barges into her well-ordered world, she is the queen bee at Khumalo Hair and Beauty Treatment Salon in Harare. A village girl, with a village ‘world’ view and a set way of doing things, she does not take kindly to this invasion and dislikes him from the get go.
Not only is he male, in the female dominated world of hairdressing, he also knows his onions. Unlike Vimbai, who believes that any female who walks into the salon wants to leave ‘feeling like a white woman’ (as she puts it ‘white is a state of mind’), Dumi works from the angle that women want to feel beautiful, he has magic fingers that can change a woman from dowdy to sophisticated just by snipping a couple of inches off her hair.

Dumi is good looking, confident (a bit overbearing), well groomed and charming. He is completely unlike most men in Vimbai’s experience and all the clients who, hitherto, would have only Vimbai attend to their hair, now book appointments to see Dumi. To add insult to injury, within the first three months of his employment he is chosen overVimbai (in spite of her long service, loyalty and dedication) as the manager of the salon.

In a twist of fate (truthfully, the twist is of the writer’s keyboard) Dumi and Vimbai become housemates. From there it was a short step away from love, romance and a ticket ‘happily-ever-after’, as Dumi charms his way into the hearts of Vimbai and her young daughter. For a while everything appears to be perfect, for the first time in a long while, everything is lined up in obeisance to Vimbai’s every wish.

This book is a strong debut from the Zimbabwean author. He was able to use simple, everyday language and gentle humour to address a vast array of issues, which in other books might end up sounding repetitive and boring.

His characters are well rounded, with the usual human flaws; nobody was over or underdone. There is the Minister who has a mean streak a mile wide and would not hesitate to sic her thugs on you if she feels you’ve insulted her; but who on the other hand is kind and does not condescend to people. There was Mrs. Khumalo; a hard-headed business woman, who displays a motherly heart.

The story is tight knit and fast paced. Unlike a lot of books written recently about Africa, there are no long chapters where the author uses a character to pontificate on one issue or the other. There are no superfluous chapters or loose ends. Every chapter was a step taken towards the conclusion of the novel.

The story is set in present day Harare, which Huchu manages to paint so realistically with words that the reader can easily follow Vimbai on her daily journey from her home to the salon. An example is the way Vimbai gives directions to the salon in the first chapter, “Go up from Harare Gardens, skip two roads, take a left, skip another road and look for the blue house on your right, not the green one and you’re there. You’d have to be a nincompoop to miss it.”

The author touches on a wide range of problems that has plagued African nations for years; corruption, lack of infrastructures, poverty, etc., but these facts are not used to evoke pity. Rather they are skilfully manipulated to move the story forward. This book is neither a cry for a ‘white saviour’ or an attack on colonialism (neo- or otherwise). The characters walk onto the pages, deal with their problems and move on.

The Hairdresser of Harare is written in the first person narrative, and the author is able to resist the temptation to delve into the thoughts of the other characters. Everything is written through the narrator’s eyes and world view (in this case, a semi-literate opinionated view). Yet, he manages to give the reader an insight into how the minds of the other characters work.

The book is the embodiment of the saying ‘less is more’. It gives its reader a chance to reflect on what has been said without thrusting its opinion down your throat. It manages to present each character in all their flawed glory without passing judgement or compelling the writer to form an opinion one way or another.

The book starts out with the words “I knew that there was something not quite right about Dumi the very first day I ever laid eyes on him.” This sentence draws the reader in, it is a big sign that you’re about to go for a ride full of suspense. You jump in and four chapters later you know exactly what was ‘not right’ about Dumi.
Unfortunately, Vimbai doesn’t get ‘it’; all the signs and clues dropped by Dumi and the members of his family are totally ignored by her (or as the writer would have us believe, she is ignorant of the signs) and against her gut instinct she goes ahead to fall in love with him.

Although the author tries to maintain the suspense of the yarn by peppering the book with other sentences like “If I’d known what I discovered three weeks later...” etc., it falls flat, leaving the reader rather annoyed and with the uneasy feeling that the author is somehow implying that one is almost as blind as the protagonist. If Huchu wanted to stretch out the suspense, he should not have given so much away from the beginning of the book. There are so many of these ‘signposts’ that one is tempted to yell ”We know already!” at him each time one reads another sentence leaning to the fact that the book is supposed to be suspenseful.
The story should have simply been left as what it is; a simple story of love, loss and acceptance, instead of trying to make out that the plot is more complex than it really is.

Aside from making the protagonist almost stupidly blind, the author also bases the crisis and its resolution on almost improbable circumstances which could be torn apart with a few, well-placed observations.

On the whole The Hairdresser of Harare  is an enjoyable read. It is one of the brave new books being written these days by Africans, about Africa and tackles issues that are still considered taboo on the continent.

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Book Title: The Hairdresser of Harare
Author: Tendai Huchu
Publisher: Freight Books
No of pages: 236

About the Reviewer
Ayodele Olofintuade is a Nigerian author of children’s literature. She lives in Ibadan, Nigeria.