Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-The Hairdresser of Harare

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu--First, a thank you to the author and to The African Books Collective for sending me a copy of this book, and, secondly, an apology to the author for taking so long to get to this review. I actually finished reading this about three weeks ago, but then I never got around to reviewing it. I kept putting it off and putting it off because I wasn't sure what I wanted to say about it. Finally, I had read so much other stuff recently, that I couldn't really remember any of the finer points, so decided that I needed to re-read I did.

I enjoyed the book both times, so that was good. Although there was plenty of foreshadowing of bad things to come, there wasn't any hard-core suspense, but I was always interested to see how everything was going to play out for the main characters. Vimbai is the star hairdresser at Mrs. Khumalo's salon, so when Dumisani, a charming, good looking young man, walks into the salon and quickly outshines her, her world is turned upside down. She has lost all her leverage as the salon's big draw, but business picks up so much because of Dumisani that everyone is benefitting from his being there. The fact that he is so likeable makes it even harder to resent him. Eventually, Dumi ends up becoming Vimbai's tenant, they become friends, and everything seems to be rolling along great. Vimbai realizes that she is attracted to Dumi but she is extremely guarded because of her past. Dumi introduces Vimbai to his family, who are crazy about her, but he has some secrets of his own.

I don't feel like I can talk a whole lot about the things that I found interesting about this book without spoiling it; although, for me, the spoiler-y stuff was no surprise at all and, in fact, I suspect it is part of the draw of the book...

OK, so non-spoiler-y stuff first: This story takes place in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. It took me a while to date the story-at first I thought it might be set in the '60s or '70s--a man walks into a salon to try to do a woman's job, and people are slightly scandalized.  There is some talk about AIDS and condom use, so maybe the '80s or '90s? Eventually there were references to cell phones and even Sex and the City. So, while I'm still not sure exactly when this story is set, it's a fairly modern tale. Just goes to show how one's preconceived notions of "modernity" can get in the way!

I've never read anything set in Zimbabwe before, and if you had asked me, I couldn't have really told you anything about it until the author started talking about the currency. The characters carry around bricks of cash, and even then it can be hard to come by what they need. Bartering and trading are much more effective. Oh, yeeeaaah. I do remember hearing something about Zimbabwean currency. At one point in the story, the Minister's husband comes into the salon and talks to Dumi about setting up a spa day for his wife a couple of months down the road. Dumi is happy to do it but tells the Minister's husband, "We'll have to charge you on the day because anything you give us now will be worthless by then." Wow--I never realized that things were so bad that it wasn't even worth being paid today for a service being done tomorrow (well, a couple months from tomorrow, but still...). Apparently things are changing, but there's still a problem with currency in Zimbabwe. Anyway, getting this peek into modern-day Harare was interesting, and I'm glad to have read it.


OK, spoiler-y stuff: So, as you may or may not have guessed, Dumi, the charming, good-looking male hairdresser with a secret, is gay. Chalk this up to stereotypes, but to me this was pretty obviously the Big Secret of this book from the very beginning, but Vimbai is completely shocked when she finds out. To be fair, Dumi does lead her on a bit, but her reaction to this discovery was another reality check for me about how my assumptions about modern-day attitudes are based on a pretty insulated view of the world. I was shocked by the fact that Vimbai didn't even suspect that Dumi might be gay, and the results of her discovery--both her inner dialogue and her physical actions--were heartbreaking. As much as I like to think that we are making progress in this country, sometimes I watch TV and have to wonder if there aren't a lot of Americans who would still react the same way as Vimbai.

There is a part in the book where Dumi and Vimbai attend a service at Vimbai's church and the pastor talks about morality and how "You must be on the lookout for homosexuals and sexual deviants. Perverts shall burn. How can a man and another man sleep together? God mad Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve." (Really?? Ugh. Cheeseball as hell, but I guess people fall for that stuff.) It becomes clear that although Vimbai may not have spent a lot of time considering her stance on homosexuals (because how likely are you, really, to run into one of these creatures of myth and legend in the real world??), when faced with one in her presence, her innate response is that they are bad and wrong. After a cooling-off period, she does realize that perhaps her initial response was brash--after all, Dumi has been kind to her and her daughter; in fact, homosexual tendencies aside, he seems like an incredibly decent human being. Of course, this consideration comes a little too late for Dumi. The results of Vimbai's initial anger are already irreversible.  The fact that she comes to regret her choices leaves one hopeful, but sad nonetheless. Vimbai seems to be a good, considerate person as well, perhaps a little bit self-centered, but then again, aren't we all sometimes?  So her reaction to Dumi is that much more painful.

So, while this book is mostly an easy read about the romantic complications of a single-mother hairdresser in Harare, it does bring up some serious issues. It makes the reader question his or her own beliefs and examine the basis of those beliefs. At the same time, it doesn't come across preachy or judgmental. Vimbai's reactions, although harsh and ultimately harmful, are understandable from the point of view of a scorned lover, orientation aside.

Have you read The Hairdresser of Harare? If you have, I'd be happy to add a link to your review. I'd also love to hear your thoughts below!


Care said...

Once you get started - that is quite a review! I always enjoy books set in another part of the world I am unfamiliar with but I don't seem lately to be drawn to them. I really need to seek more out so I will consider this one. Thank you.

Jeanne said...

It seems to me fairly common to read about a small part of my own country or a region of another country where accepted truth lags two decades behind. That's something I tend to forget, otherwise.

Anna said...

This one is new to me. It sounds interesting even if the surprises weren't surprises.

Dreamybee said...

Care-I'm often not drawn to books in foreign settings either--and by foreign I mean *really* foreign, not like England or Canada or Mexico--but I usually enjoy them once I pick them up. I think part of what keeps me away is the fear that place and character names are going to be distractingly difficult. I just read an article about Iran, and all the names were this long ________________________________________, and every time I'd have to stop and stumble my way through the names and then figure out, wait, who was that again and how does he relate to these other people? Makes for long, tedious reading! Luckily, I didn't find the names in The Hairdresser of Harare to be that difficult. :)

Jeanne-Yes, exactly. Makes me wonder what beliefs I hold that others might be looking at and thinking, "Really?? You still believe that?" Hopefully, not too many!

Anna-I hope you enjoy it if you decide to read it. :)

Hairdresser South Melbourne said...

It is good to see nice hairdresser.

Dreamybee said...

Yes, spambot, nobody wants mean hairdresser.