Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Henna Artist

Title:  The Henna Artist
Author:  Alka Joshi
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778309452 / 978-0778309451

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Harlequin Trade Publishing 2020 Spring Reads Blog Tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Her feet step lightly on the hard earth, calloused soles insensible to the tiny pebbles and caked mud along the riverbank."

Favorite Quote:  "In India, individual shame did not exist. Humiliation spread, as easily as oil on wax paper, to the entire family, even to distant cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. The rumormongers made sure of that."

Henna is a memory of my childhood - the smell, the color, the sisterhood, and the recipes from getting the most vibrant color. This book takes that art form and puts in the context of 1950s India. To understand this book requires some understanding of that time in the Indian subcontinent. The British Raj had just ended in 1947. The British Crown ruled the subcontinent from 1858 to 1947. Then came independence and the creation of the countries of India, Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh. Culturally, the British left their mark on the countries, the government, and particularly on the lifestyles of the rich.

To further understand the book requires an understanding of the concept of an independent, enterprising woman in that time and place. The women were often the unspoken matriarchs in what was essentially a male-dominated society. The women wielded power but subtly. So, the idea of a woman make her own way is an even stronger one.

In this context is the story of Lakshmi Shashtri. She is a child bride at fifteen. She escapes an abusive marriage and runs. With support and the right introductions, she establishes herself as a henna artist although her gift also lies in an understanding of herbal medicines and their impact. She navigates the social pitfalls of caste, culture, political changes, and the moods and peculiarities of her rich clients. She is known for her henna artistry and more secretly for her medicinal cures for everything from headaches, heartaches to unwanted pregnancies. Through her work, she is close to achieving her goal of a home for herself and her parents.

The story takes a turn when a sister she knew nothing about arrives on her doorstep. Things get complicated and threaten to destroy everything Lakshmi has worked for. Or perhaps bring her to a direction and life she has never dreamed of.

The characters and the setting in the pink city of Jaipur are vibrant. However, to me, they do not match the history of the time. The leaving of the British Raj was a dramatic and traumatic change as was the partition of India and Pakistan. These events broke up families and friendships and caused huge numbers of people to move as they transitioned from one country to the other. It was a time of strife and uncertainty. That history does not reflect in this book.

Perhaps, you could say the history is not relevant as the book is more narrowly focused on the story of one woman and on highlighting the role of women. It does that through the various female characters. The mother plotting advantageous marriages for their children. The wealthy socialite who understands her dominance over her community. The poor nanny who is left without a voice and without options. The wife who dreams of being a mother, a role that is still deemed needed to complete a woman. And, of course, the sisters Lakshmi and Radha. Both are rebels in their own way. Lakshmi takes the road of working within the system but creating her own path. Radha is the impetuous one. The story itself is not unexpected, but the women bring it to life.

A strong debut. I look forward to reading more from Alka Joshi.

The Henna Artist
Blog Tour

Author: Alka Joshi

ISBN: 0778309452 / 978-0778309451

Publication Date: 03/03/2020

Author Bio:

Alka Joshi is a graduate of Stanford University and received her M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts. She has worked as an advertising copywriter, a marketing consultant, and an illustrator. Alka was born in India, in the state of Rajasthan. Her family came to the United States when she was nine, and she now lives on California's Monterey Peninsula with her husband and two misbehaving pups. The Henna Artist is her first novel. Visit her website and blog

Buy Links: 

Social Links:
FB: @alkajoshi2019
Insta: @thealkajoshi
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18257842.Alka_Joshi

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