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The Hairdresser of Harare
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The story is told by Sisi Vimbai, a single mother, who is the leading stylist in a Harare hairdressing saloon until the handsome Dumisane Ncubi turns up who is an even better stylist than she is, and whom the saloon's owner appoints as the saloon's manager. Sisi is mortified; but Dumi and Vimbai has a spare room. Dumi moves in, and in the course of time, he and she become "an item", and Sisi's little daughter Chiwoniso also becomes very fond of "Uncle Dumi". Dumi's wealthy parents and siblings treat Vimbai as a member of the family, though she is a single mother and from a lower social class than they are. All this is told in a leisurely manner and in pleasant and simple prose in the first two-thirds of the book.

The first two sentence of the novel read, "I knew there was something not quite right with Dumi the very first time I ever laid eyes on him, The problem was, I just couldn't tell what it was." It is only in the last third of the book that Sisi discovers what was "not quite right" with him. It devastates her, and her reactions have terrible consequences.

This central story is set against the background of life in Zimbabwe under Mugabe: terrible shortages for all except the people at the top; corruption; an inflation which means that "bricks" of banknotes are needed to pay for purchases; the lawless "veterans" who can be used by the powerful to beat up their opponents; the terrible risks run by homosexuals in that society.

An easy and in the end a very powerful read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2012
This was a really nice read! The writing is very fluent and I was drawn into the story immediately.

Vimbai is an ordinary woman struggling with work and her family (a daughter, no husband, but she has a home help). There are problems with electricity, safety on the streets, etc. Zimbabwe's currency devaluates while you wait and a white customer in the salon may be evicted by armed war vets.

Altogether not an easy time for Vimbai. She's lucky to have a job, though, as there is 90% unemployment. When Dumisani comes to work at the salon, Vimbai feels threatened as he takes her position as best hairdresser in the salon. But she can't help liking him and she becomes more and more involved in his life and his family.

I very much liked the setting and learned some new things about Zimbabwe. The story didn't explain everything about the country, neither was it hard to follow if you don't know much about the country. So, a book that is both interesting for people that know the country, and those who don't.

Vimbai was rather shocked when she finds out a secret about Dumisani. That sounded very realistic. She did however get over the shock a bit too quickly to my liking, a slower progression from absolute shock to acceptance would have been better, I think. But I loved how Vimbai's brother's philosophy club helped her out. Brilliant!

A really nice read that I can recommend to anyone who would like to read a story about a country they don't know much about.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 17 June 2012
In his debut novel, Tendai Huchu has produced a cleverly crafted, many faceted, multi-layered story, rich in storyline detail and character assessment, which highlights the political and social montage of a post-apartheid Zimbabwean population trying its hardest to survive the rule of a regime which relies on fear and oppression to maintain its control.

Rich with character and humor, `The Hairdressser Of Harare', is at once a gripping excursion through Zimbabwe's landscapes and the poignant and often sad story of two people drawn together by mutual rejection from their respective families, illustrating only too vividly that wealth and position play no advantage in the human morality stakes, only in its ability to mask the truth and maintain a facade.

When we first meet Vimbai, she is a young woman who has plenty of history. Coming from an impoverished background, naive and beguiled by the bright lights, when she is raped and left pregnant by a philandering, smooth-talking rogue, she is disowned by her parents, for bringing shame on the family and is left to fend for herself and her child. She guards her daughter jealously, vowing to afford her every opportunity in life to better herself and with her innate sense of pride and determination to improve their quality of life, she takes full advantage of every opportunity afforded to her. From time to time we see this desire to rise up the social scale, overtake her thinking and start to question her morality. However, as her character grows and matures during the course of the several months we get to know her, we see her learn to temper her selfishness and impetuosity with compassion and understanding, as she defies the rules of convention to help the friend who has changed her life forever, whilst potentially putting her own life in danger. She also learns the valuable lesson that she has never been totally abandoned by her siblings, who willingly place themselves in danger to help guide her on the right path in dealing with her moral dilemma.

Dumi, is a young man with a secret which could cost him his life at any point in time. He is from a wealthy and influential `party' family, supremely confident in himself and his abilities, brash ... BUT ... deep down, a coward. When he is disowned by his family, who have their suspicions about his secret life, Dumi is quick to survive and prosper by his own wit and talent, never once taking into account the feelings and circumstances of the people he is walking over to achieve this. He clearly has some affection for Vimbai, however he is basically using her as a cover story, in his bid to ingratiate himself back into his parents lives. It isn't that he particularly craves their acceptance, as he is like Vimbai in that he already has the love and acceptance of his sibling, however he does desire the large allowance they once afforded him and the trappings of their wealth and influential position. He places Vimbai in an almost impossible position, making promises which he knows that he will ultimately be unable to fulfill, then when the going gets tough and his secret threatens their very lives, he leaves her to discover the truth for herself, rather than being a man about things and telling her himself.

Reconciliation between the young couple, comes swiftly, but at a price which will leave them both at a turning point in their lives. Decisions have to be made and actioned quickly and both ultimately need to assess what is most important to them.

The secondary characters all either love to be liked, or like to be hated and feared, but all are richly described and fulfill distinct and important roles in the overall story of the two main protagonists.

The whole experience of reading the excellent social commentary which is, `The Hairdresser Of Harare', has shown me a portrait of a country, ruled by a repressive and cruel regime, where many of its people live in constant fear of the authorities and to speak out or go against the `norm' means certain retribution. It also only serves to highlight the huge gap between the have's and the have not's and the utter brutality dealt out to those who dare to challenge the prescribed moral and social codes of society, by both the authorities and one's own social peers.

This unforgiving landscape does also produce some lighter, humorous interludes and exchanges, from a populace which despite everything, is trying desperately hard to keep cheerful and make the best of their everyday lives, adding a great tenderness and poignancy to the story.

There is perhaps one area of the story which I wish had been more fully expanded upon, and that is the ending itself. Whilst I can fully appreciate the way that Dumi's exit was played out and led to a natural closure for his character, I found my mind full of questions about the fate of Vimbai and what the future might hold for her.

Tendai, with his smooth writing style, authentic and genuine characters has undoubtedly produced a work of contemporary fiction entwined with some subtle humour and innuendo, but scratch the surface and I see a forceful and strong piece of political and social satire.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 August 2011
The Hairdresser of Harare depicts the life of single mother Vimbai, who lives in Harare in Zimbabwe. Vimbai is queen bee at the hair dressing salon where she works and she knows it. One day the most unexpected and unlikely competitor walks in the door - the young man Dumi, a natural talent at styling hair, who charms everybody but Vimbai, who is both jealous and ill-at-ease over the newcomer.

We follow the entire story through Vimbai's eyes and I love that woman. I was very dubious at first, but once I realised how realistically the author depicts her, her situation and her surroundings, I couldn't help but fall for her. She is a strong woman, proud of her independence, but not too proud to not accept good help when offered. The book tells her story through her eyes and we follow her as she grudgingly accepts Dumi's friendship and discovers that so much more is within reach, but also realises that not all is at it appears and is forced to make a decision that can have dire consequences.

As mentioned above the setting is very realistic. The poverty, the corruption, the question of race and culture - it all paints a very clear picture: Zimbabwe is not an easy country to live in. Having recently been to Kenya, I felt I had an even deeper insight in the happenings, having seen just how poor some are and the miserable circumstances they live under - and just how richly others live in stark contrast.

The book is really well written and I strongly recommend others to give it a read. It is much more mature than my usual YA genre, but I truly enjoyed it and wish more knew of this African jewel - it truly deserves much more attention.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 July 2013
This is a book with an excellent pace - you just race through as the story whirls around in a riot of colour. The best part is how it shows ordinary people, trying to make their way in a country where money is almost defunct due to inflation. The plot revolves around a hairdressing salon, which is definitely unusual for a novel about Zimbabwe! The main character, Vimbai, is the star of the salon until Dumisani turns up and starts making waves. She is wonderfully portrayed, a soul with where conscience and self interest are in constant struggle. Refreshingly ordinary.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Vimbai is the queen bee at the Harare salon where she works until one day a man walks in and asks for a job. To the women of Zimbabwe a male hairdresser is unheard of but he soon proves that he is the best around. Understandably, Vimbai is resentful but slowly a friendship forms between the two.

This book manages to highlight many of Zimbabwe's problems in a plot that would not feel out of place in the chick-lit genre. These are people with normal everyday lives in a country that is in turmoil and I think Tendai Huchu does a fantastic balancing act between light-hearted and informative whilst keeping a dark edge. Don't expect lots of detail into the current affairs of the country though, it's a short book and I think explanations would weigh it down.

The character of Vimbai is hard to like at times, her attitude has been shaped by her past and also her cultural upbringing which is so different from my own. Some of her opinions are quite shocking to a liberal reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2011
There is plenty to laugh about at the start of this novel including the politically incorrect philosophy of the hairdressing heroine: 'Your client should leave the salon feeling like a white woman'. There are two key secrets that are slowly unveiled as the novel progresses, both dealing with conflicts between the principal characters and their families, and to some extent Zimbabwean society at large. This provided some good suspense which could have been sustained a bit further into the novel if the clues to the male character's secret had been a bit more subtle.
Above and beyond the story itself I found the setting fascinating, in particular how people cope in a failing economy with hyperinflation: 'She took the brick-like bundle of cash ... She did not need to count it. We can tell the value of money from its weight'.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2013
Huchu's novel "The Hairdresser of Harare" is an enjoyable but slight read - I read it in a day. As its title suggests, it's set in contemporary Zimbabwe in a local salon. Narrated by 26-year-old protagonist, Vimbai, this is ostensibly a novel about the day-to-day life of a hairdresser trying to keep her head above water, especially once her position as top stylish is challenged by the arrival of a new hairdresser.

However, it's also a novel about gender politics and politics in general; it wants to look at the position of women in Zimbabwean society, especially the status and vulnerabilities of single women in addition to considering cultural prejudices about both men and women. The novel also highlights power and corruption under Mugabe and is at its most impressive when depicting the everyday shortages and dangers of living in modern Zimbabwe or describing the huge disparity between the nation's rich and poor.

"The Hairdresser of Harare" is an enjoyable read; the plot trips along briskly, the characters are engaging enough, but the major plot twist was obvious to me from almost the second chapter which is always disappointing. Additionally, Huchu's habit of ending chapters or paragraphs with little phrases signposting future plot developments ("Little did I know....") did become progressively more annoying as a device. Had the writing been a little less clumsy and a bit more left to the imagination this could have been a much better book. However as it stands, it's to my mind a good, quick summer-holiday read but nothing more.
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on 25 December 2013
This feels like the sort of book that would be destined to be a Richard and Judy Book Club read (if that book club still existed). It's short, has easy flowing prose, and it's easy and unchallenging. It's got just enough culture shock to offer an interesting flavour and put the reader in a new place, but not enough to overwhelm or alienate anyone.

The story starts when our narrator, the best hairdresser in a stylist's in Harare unexpectedly gets competition for the crown when a male hairdresser is hired. Male stylists are totally unheard of, and he's much more talented than her, quickly relegating her to lower rank in the pecking order. Their relationship changes from being pure competitors to becoming people who use and rely on each other.

All plot developments are heralded well in advance and unsurprising to European / American readers, which helps the book retain a certain sweetness even when bad things happen. There's a major plot point which is fairly obvious from the first page, but still treated like a giant surprise revelation, which makes me think the reader was always supposed to know more than the book's narrator (it's all told through the eyes of the female hairdresser).

The story is quite casual about bad things - omnipresent sexual harrassment, deprivation, rape, racism, persecution, sexual abuse of children, thug squads, death squads - there's lots of grimness in these pages, but it's always safe, at arm's length, part of the story's scenery rather than its heart. It makes the story easy to digest while giving it some sense of authenticity.

For some light entertainment with an African / Zimbabwean flavour, I'd recommend this book.
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on 21 July 2011
There can't be many places in the world that are as fierce about trying to control foreign interest as Zimbabwe. Many of us undoubtedly know the headlines but little about the daily life of the country. I love novels set abroad and find those set in Africa particularly interesting, and as Zimbabwe is something of a mystery this was an alluring offering.

Vimbai is the queen of Mrs Khumalo's salon, revelling in her reputation and enjoying esteemed clientele. Her position is threatened when Dumisani is taken on. She tries to remain immune to his charm but when he can no longer afford his rent she takes him in as a lodger. She gradually comes to see him as a friend, and when she attends his brother's wedding with him in an attempt to heal a family rift she is surprised to find out he is from a wealthy family. Despite her lowly roots, and her status as the mother of an illegitimate child, they welcome her into their family. Their relationship gradually changes but the pair are moving in different directions, and the future becomes perilous when a secret blows their world apart.

The early part of this book provides a picture of daily life for the ladies in the salon and while politics influences so many aspects of their life it isn't explicitly discussed. Hyperinflation is so much the norm it barely rates a mention. Despite the country's problems there is humour too. The story gradually picks up pace and starts to address more serious issues, such as racial intolerance and homophobia, as it progresses. While the secret that changes the course of Vimbai and Dumisani's lives came as no surprise to me the results of the revelation were dramatic and saddening.

I thought this was a beautifully written novel, especially for a debut, and the author's style feels polished and accomplished. Despite an economy with descriptive prose I could almost imagine the places Vimbai frequents. The use of local lingo threw me to start with, but once I accepted there was no need for interpretation, just a sense of the meanings, it added to the feel of the book. The violence and narrow-mindedness was astonishing to me, but values are relative and while Vimbai's initial response to Dumi's secret shocked me I found myself trying to look at the situation through different eyes and with a different upbringing.

I devoured this book over the course of two days in a matter of hours, and am struggling to find any criticisms to level at it. This is a great piece of contemporary fiction.
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