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The Henna Artist – Book Review

The Henna Artist

by Alka Joshi
Published by: Mira Books
Publish Date: 2020
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction, Cultural – India
HB&W Rating: 5
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository


Escaping from an abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone to the vibrant 1950s pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the most highly requested henna artist—and confidante—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 that surround her as she does.

Synopsis source: Goodreads

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An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. ~ Gandhi, maybe

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for a great cover, and this book delivered. The red hues of the cover reflect the vibrancy of the story so well. It was beautifully rendered and beautifully written, so lets dive in!

The one thing that threw me for a loop with this book was the character list at the beginning. Right off, I was concerned that I was going to get so lost in this story, and not in a good way. But honestly, I didn’t even need it once! All of the characters are introduced well and even those that make only cursory appearances, like Mrs. Iyengar, the landlady, are memorable. So don’t let that character list scare you!

The biggest thing that struck me about this story was the overall atmosphere. The vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells really took me to India and had me dreaming of it for days after finishing. From the descriptions of the henna designs and meanings behind them to the herbal medicine used and explained, everything was so finely detailed yet explained in a way that further immersed you in the setting.

You may want to use two bookmarks for this book, however, one for your regular stopping point and another for the Glossary of Terms at the back of the book which provides definitions for various Hindi, French, and English terms. I personally loved learning some of the words and phrases you might hear in India, even if it had me flipping to the back of the book a LOT. I think it was just one more way in which the author really brought India to life for the reader. Similarly, I enjoyed the smattering of Indian proverbs throughout the book, which ranged from the serious to the silly and were used by the author to drive home certain story points.

The one-eyed man is king among the blind.

The inspiration behind this story was the reimagining of the author’s mother’s life had she not wed at 18 and had 3 children by age 22, had she been able to choose her own path instead of uphold the cultural responsibilities of her sex. In her character, Lakshmi, the author explores how a woman of her mother’s talents and drive might have made it in 1950s Jaipur. ***There’s a conversation with the author at the back of the book that goes into this in more detail, if you’re interested.***

Saasuji once told me there were three kinds of karma: the accumulated karma from all our past lives; the karma we created in this life; and the karma we stored to ripen in our future lives.

Lakshmi has worked hard, starting with nothing and slowly making a name for herself as a henna artist.  Her business is taking off, new plans are about to come to fruition, and everything she’s ever wanted is within reach.  Then the abusive husband she fled turns up on her doorstep with a sister she never knew about.  With her parents dead and an outcast in her village, Radha has no one else to turn to except her jiji. Introducing Radha, a 13 year old girl who has only ever known village life to wealthy castes of Jaipur society proves to be increasingly more challenging and Lakshmi can feel her dreams slipping through her fingers.

I really liked all of the characters in this story. Lakshmi isn’t perfect, but she works hard and tries to do her best by those around her. I found her to be a bit short-sighted when it came to the needs of others at the beginning of the story, which came across deliberate on her part. Don’t ask, don’t tell kind of. For example, she mentions at the start of the story that she doesn’t know where Malik lives, if he has family or if he’s on his own, etc and he’d been with her for years at this point. But the fact that she still hired him to run errands showed compassion all the same. I liked this complexity of character. Then when Radha shows up, a teenager she’s now responsible for, her cluelessness and second-guessing was entirely understandable.

A wise man to the rest of the world is a nobody at home.

Radha was a definite character, and I found myself wondering through many parts of the story if she was just a teenager completely out of her element letting her feelings and emotions motivate her, or if she was deliberately manipulative. I found her a very interesting character and she provided almost all of the challenges to Lakshmi throughout the story. I heard from a couple of you reading along with me on this that she got on your nerves, and I get that, but I also think she was just being a teenager, a phase of parenthood I’m quickly approaching and not ready for LOL.

Probably my favorite character in the story is the loyal Malik. He’s the street-wise errand boy for Lakshmi who becomes the little big brother to the awestruck Radha when she arrives on scene. His loyalty, cleverness and antics won my heart, and I’m so excited that he’s getting his own novel in the sequel to this book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, which is already on my Want to Read list.

***September 2021 Update! See my review and our book club discussion of The Secret Keeper of Jaipur with a special appearance from the author herself! Find it HERE!***

There is a lot of material in this book outside of the lovely story and setting that recommends this novel for discussion. Set in 1950s India shortly after the end of British rule there, the country is in a transition period. There are those eager to move forward to a more modern, Western idea of society and those who cling to the traditions of the past, for better or worse. One way in which this is evident is in the juxtaposition of Western Medicine vs Eastern Medicine and women’s rights of the modern world vs their cultural obligations. Another fascinating and discussion-worthy topic in this novel is the caste system, which reading further about at the back of the book reveals is still very-much ingrained today. The discriminating caste system precludes that only certain groups may be permitted certain jobs, schooling, etc. You don’t marry outside of your caste, and you don’t change castes, you inherit the caste of your parents. Speaking of discrimination, we are given a brief glance at religious discrimination in the person of Mrs. Iyengar, who refuses to allow the Muslim Malik into her hearth without admonishing Lakshmi to have it purified afterwards. This is counter-balanced more heavily in the way Malik and Lakshmi work together and care for one another, despite this difference in religion.

This was another 5 star read for me…I know, I know. I went ages without one and now I have two in a row, but seriously, it was just so good. If you’re looking to travel from the comfort of your couch, to immerse yourself in a world wholly different from your own, and open up your mind to a different point of view, I would encourage you to give this book a read. I can tell you that I eagerly await reading the sequel, and the final book of the trilogy whenever it gets announced.

***Side note: There is a great Meet the Author video on YouTube where you can get to know Alka Joshi a bit and learn a little more about her inspiration for this story. View that video here.***

I hope you’ll join me for Books, WIPs, + Sips Book Club on Instagram Stories Live this coming Tuesday, July 27th at 7pm CST to discuss this title! Join me and my guest host, Kalley of Kneedles and Life as we sip some bevies, work on a project, and dish on this book. I hope to see you there!

***July 28, 2021 Update: You can watch the reply of our book club discussion below!***

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