Warning of the dangers of what she calls “the single story” about any given place or people, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that it “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Too often in the United States, we have created a single narrative about foreign countries, particularly African countries: They’re impoverished and war-torn and beset by disease or, more benignly, simply teeming with exotic animals.
Thankfully, the single story seems to be giving way as American publishing has embraced a vibrant chorus of voices from the African continent — Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo and Chigozie Obioma among others. To which we can now add one more, Tendai Huchu, whose debut novel, “The Hairdresser of Harare,” while uneven, provides a fresh and moving account of contemporary Zimbabwe. When the novel opens, Huchu’s narrator, Vimbai, is a struggling single mother, estranged from her family. But she is also the best hairdresser in Harare — at least until a charismatic fellow named Dumisani arrives at her salon. The secrets Dumi brings with him ultimately transform Vimbai and her understanding of the world around her.
Late in the novel, on a trip to Victoria Falls, Vimbai and Dumi encounter a BBC reporter covering the collapse of the tourist industry. He tells them about an encounter with a man who changed his tire and gave him a live chicken, the kind of story that “doesn’t make for great news.” Most of Huchu’s novel, dealing as it does with the quotidian, wouldn’t either. We follow Vimbai as she struggles to catch one of the city’s kombi buses (which spend more time queuing for increasingly scarce gas than picking up passengers), watches the latest Will Smith movie, visits an open-air philosophy club and hands over bricks of near-useless currency in exchange for black-market sugar. The novel’s characters and their problems aren’t extraordinary, but that’s precisely what makes them feel so real.
And yet “The Hairdresser of Harare” is also political. Vimbai’s story is a lens through which we view a culture wrestling with corruption, class stratification and the aftershocks of colonialism. The novel does a fine job of exploring the tensions in a country where, as Vimbai explains, the key to success as a hairdresser is to have your client “leave the salon feeling like a white woman.”
At times, Huchu overreaches, forcing Vimbai to spell things out: “Could it really be that independence had become a greater burden than the yoke of colonial oppression?” And he ends too many chapters with melodramatic foreshadowing. (“Little did I know that this small twist of fate would. . . .”; “I couldn’t have known that lurking underneath. . . .”; “At that time . . . none of us could have known. . . .”)
Vimbai’s narrative is economical, often comic, but it’s sometimes burdened by cliché. (She explains her attraction to a man because he “had a way with words” and, remarking on another man who’s interested in her, says his “eyes quickly devoured my body.”) Huchu also tends to use overlong stretches of dialogue to convey information.
While the novel doesn’t become didactic in its portrayal of complex sociopolitical issues, it never fully engages with them either. Vimbai’s professional success is related almost as if it were part of a fairy tale — magically underwritten by characters we’re told are rich, at least in part, because of “the numerous palms . . . greased along the way,” without much recognition that this sort of patronage, allowing certain people to advance because of status and money, has consequences for others without such connections. Vimbai never seems especially conflicted about the source of her good fortune; since the narrative sticks to her perspective, neither does the novel. And yet, “The Hairdresser of Harare” ultimately wins us over with the vividness of its setting and characters, and with its reminder of the multitude of rich stories to be found in their daily lives.
THE HAIRDRESSER OF HARARE
By Tendai Huchu
189 pp. Ohio University Press. Cloth, $35. Paper, $16.95.