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.
Format: Review e-book copy
My Rating: 5*