The Henna Artist
- Author: Alka Joshi
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Publication Date: March 3, 2020
- Publisher: Mira Books
CONTENT WARNING: domestic abuse, infidelity, abortion, alcoholism, depression, miscarriage, infertility, suicide
Escaping from an arranged and abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone from her 1950s rural village to the vibrant pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the henna artist — and confidante — most in demand to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own …
Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow — a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those who surround her as she does.
Vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, The Henna Artist opens a door into a world that is at once lush and fascinating, stark and cruel.
This book came up on my radar, so when I saw it at the library, I couldn’t resist even though I had a huge stack of books already waiting to be read. And it was totally worth it.
One of my favorite things about a great book is the way opening the cover seems to open a portal into a new world. Flipping a page is like stepping into a different place, a land I’ve never been to, and learning about the culture, traditions, beliefs, and social structure. And this book did all of that so effortlessly. Reading this was like stepping into 1950s Jaipur and walking beside Lakshmi.
Lakshmi is a woman fighting to remain independent in a society that doesn’t take kindly to single women. She’s fortunate to have a craft of her own, working as a henna artist, but she’s controversial. Just her appearance, as an Indian woman with blue eyes, invites questions:
“India was a land of coal-black irises. Blue eyes demanded an explanation. Did I have a sordid past? A European father? Or, even worse, an Anglo-Indian mother? I was thirty years old, born during British rule and used to aspersions being cast on my parentage.”
The appearance of a younger sister that she never knew about throws off the delicate balance of her life. As someone who makes her living by catering to the upper class, Lakshmi has to carefully toe the line of society standards. But her sister, Radha, makes it hard to do what she needs to do and threatens to upend all her hard work.
“Since her arrival in Jaipur, I’d buried myself in work, my steadfast companion. I was good at my work; it welcomed me, and I shined in its embrace. Radha, who was smart but naive, courageous but foolhardy, helpful but thoughtless, was far less manageable.”
This is the story of a woman who is trying to create her own fate in a world that adheres tightly to tradition and castes. It’s a fight for control and independence, and the ability to have a say in your own life, when everything is fighting against you.
“As a daughter, my job was to marry the man my parents chose for me, as she had. She was as powerless to change that age-old tradition as I was. Besides, there was no money to keep me at home.”
I picked up this book because it looked like a good one, and it turned out to be a great one. This was the kind of book that I couldn’t put down, and ended up putting everything else off for. I fell in love with Lakshmi’s character, and all of the characters were incredibly well-developed. Be prepared — this is a compelling story that you won’t be able to put down.
Categories: Book Review