The book Harare North by Brian Chikwava is not easy to read because of the particular writing style that he used. Although I recognized a few typical examples of the Zimbabwean way of speaking, I really did not feel that this particular style of writing represented any sector of Zimbabwe in general. Zimbabweans are known for their exceptionally high levels of literacy so the leading character narrating his story in broken english was strange. But the author did win a prestigious international writing competition so he obviously has reasons why he wrote like that.
Writing style aside, the book was a great read. It entwined humor, tragedy and irony all in one go. Harare North refers to London UK and is thus named because of the high concentration of Zimbabweans working there. The book reveals the hardships and shame of leaving your home country to work as BBC (Bum Cleaners) in the UK. The difficulty of finding a non exploitative job without the right papers and the expectations from relatives back home that drain one’s pocket on a monthly basis.
Our leading character arrives in London as a political fugitive seeking asylum status. He thinks he will be immediately granted asylum and the perks that go with it. On arrival, he is given a rude awakening and detained for a week by the Immigration officials before being given into the custody of his cousin and his wife who had previously invited him to come and stay with them.
It soon becomes clear that his cousin’s invitation was not meant to be taken seriously and he endures many indignities at their home. The book follows his attempts to get a decent job that doesn’t involve caring for the elderly. It looks at the lives of the flatmates he eventually stays with after he moves out of his cousin’s house. These interesting individuals who are stuck in a quandary and end up resorting to desperate measures to make ends meet. Like, the single mother who was impregnated by her aunt’s husband. She ends up hiring out her baby to women seeking welfare assistance. And the owner of the flat who is unmasked when it turns out he is housesitting the flat for its original owners and far from having a fancy job, he is actually a bum cleaner who has gone to great lengths to hide his profession from everyone else.
It also reveals the timeless struggles of infidelity and how women, instead of meekly accepting it, are now fighting back fire with fire. Although, as it is revealed in the book, this is a hollow victory with no clear winners on each side.
However, things are not as they seem, both in the situation the narrator is in and in himself and he develops a coping mechanism which brings the book to a dramatic and surprising turn. Readers will find the ending of the book very unexpected but also tragic.
Despite my skepticism about the writing style, I can see why Brian Chikwava is a literary genius whose star is on the rise.