Vimbai is widely acknowledged as the best hairdresser in all of Harare, Zimbabwe. She assists government ministers, nurses and professional women, executing their requested haircuts with precision and skill. But when her salon hires the intuitive Dumisani, Tendai Huchu's debut novel, "The Hairdresser of Harare," turns into a showdown between head and heart — in more ways than one. Vimbai delivers perfection, but Dumisani reads his customers' faces and souls, giving them the haircuts they need rather than the ones they want.
"The Hairdresser of Harare" is also a love story, of a kind. Because Vimbai and Dumisani are both struggling to make ends meet, she takes him in as a boarder. Vimbai has been burned before — she has an illegitimate daughter by a married businessman — and is fiercely independent. But gradually her jealousy of Dumisani melts into friendship — and then, after he invites her to a wedding and introduces her as his girlfriend, love.
All is not well, however. Dumisani's until recently estranged wealthy family is a little too eager to welcome Vimbai. She worries that her modest origins and daughter will give his parents pause, but they shower her with gifts and affection. "Only the best for the girl who cured my son," exclaims Dumisani's mother. At home, Dumisani is emotionally tender but physically distant. He disappears for nights, then days, at a time.
Vimbai begins to suspect infidelity. What she learns next feels like an outdated plot twist in an American context, a relic from an earlier decade's fiction: Dumisani is gay. Huchu does not shy from depicting his characters in an unsympathetic light in these moments. Dumisani's selfishness is evident, and Vimbai's betrayal — she reveals what she knows to the powerful wife of Dumisani's lover, with disastrous consequences — feels as motivated by bigotry as it does by anger. But this honesty does not sufficiently energize the plot, whose developments American readers will easily foresee.
The novel does succeed, in ways that will intrigue readers here, in its depictions of contemporary Zimbabwe. "The Hairdresser of Harare" is being published in the United States as part of Ohio University Press' Modern African Writing Series, and Huchu's Harare is vibrant and complex. Even when characters feel slightly caricaturish — the selfish, overbearing boss; the threatening government official — they are made specific and new by their particular circumstances.
From the shabby but expanding salon to Vimbai's citadel-like house to a shopping mall for well-to-do citizens, Huchu brings Harare's public and private spaces to vivid life. These people and places are distinguished by aspiration and failure, international engagement and small-town provincialism, wealth and poverty, family ties and bitter mistrust — and, always, the specter of violence and a tenuous peace.
Vimbai's story may feel familiar — but her home, and her world, will not.
Joey McGarvey is a writer and freelance book editor. She lives in St. Paul.