5. A book written in Africa: The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu
List Progress: 12/25
I remember when I was a young writer and had a really hard time with endings. I spent a ton of time and care painting the world of the beginning and middle, then essentially lost faith in my own story and slapped together an ending as quickly as possible. I like to think that I have outgrown this habit, but it is still something to be fought against and avoided. It is both reassuring and disappointing to see this tendency in someone else’s work, especially a published novel. But for all the good that is in the first half of the novel, the ending of The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu, retroactively colors the whole and drags down what was a very solid book otherwise.
Published in 2010, this is the first novel I have ever read from Zimbabwe. For this category, I wanted to try a modern novel, and the best point in this book’s favor is how it portrays the mundane chaos of living in Harare in a time of political upheaval. Supply shortages, petrol rationing and huge swings in inflation are described in a matter of fact way and in terms of how they impact the daily life of the main character, Vimbai, a young single mother working as a talented hairdresser in the capital city. There is a sharp-eyed look at the impacts of colonialism on the country, but a resistance to the Western portrayal of a tragically suffering nation of noble misery. Vimbai’s world and backstory feel incredibly lush and detailed. It is her present that the book lets down.
Vimbai is the most talented hairdresser at her salon before her world is shaken up by a dashing young man named Dumi, who has a near-magical way with hair and styling. Vimbai starts out seeing him as a rival, before developing a grudging friendship, and an eventual surprise romance when Dumi brings her as a guest to a wedding and introduces her as his girlfriend.
A young man bringing a female friend to a family event and flaunting her as his girlfriend to his formerly-estranged family. Think about that for a second. What is your first guess as to what is happening?
Your guess is correct, but The Hairdresser of Harare spends perhaps 80% of its page count teasing the reveal, even as it flags it more and more obviously. What should have been a mid-novel pivot is saved for a garish twist ending, and a huge amount of fallout is crammed into the last forty or so pages. For the reveal to stay where it’s at, the book should be at least fifty pages longer, if not more. Complete changes of heart and 180 degree position shifts are completed in the span of a few pages. On a structural level, this entire book needs to be reworked.
There is a lot of good in here and for the most part I enjoy Huchu’s writing style (save a tendency to have the narration call forward to the impact of events that should be allowed to unfold naturally). I’m glad I read it. But with that ending, I really cannot bring myself to recommend it.
Would You Recommend It: Unfortunately no.