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.
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.
I don’t know what I could add to the 160.059 people so far who gave that book a rating of 4,19 !
I had that book on my radar since its publication in 2020 but it took a fellow bookstagrammer to have me take the plunge.
And I am so glad I did!
I am now already reading the sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur! That’s the best proof that this book was that good 😊
The biggest asset of that book is the exquisite writing of Alka Joshi.
She explained that it took her ten years, a lot of research and many trips to India to write this novel. And it shows in all the little details included!
I was in Jaipur in the fifties, alongside Lakshmi. Building my reputation as a henna artist and confidante to the wealthy women, cooking and eating all sorts of delicacies and drinking chai tea.
I wanted to build my own beautiful house with a unique mosaic floor. To become someone paid to arrange marriages.
But Lakshmi’s plans get derailed with the arrival of thirteen years old Rada, a sister Lakshmi had no idea existed. Soon enough, Lakshmi, Malik and Rada will be their “found family”. And Radha being an unpredictable and strongheaded teenager, she’ll soon wreak havoc on Lakshmi’s life. Forcing her, by the end of the book, to consider what really matters in life.
“My younger sister was lively and curious, which was good, but she was also untamed—and that could be a dangerous combination.”
I admired Lakshmi.
Her ambition, her courage. She fled her husband, determined to make a life for herself. She was resilient, industrious and smart, relentlessly pursuing her dream with the help of Malik, a resourceful street child. And yes, she also was controlling, a trait I share with her.
But Lakshmi was also deeply empathic and compassionate. Aware of women’s plight, especially poor women who already had too many mouths to feed and whose new pregnancies felt more like a curse than a blessing.
That’s why Lakshmi, thanks to her former mother in law’s knowledge also provided contraceptive and abortive herbs to the women of Jaipur.
Artist and herbalist, that is Lakshmi for you.
Her dedication and pugnacity, her inherent diplomacy and capacity to navigate every intricate social situation bedazzled me! She had such strength and finesse at the same time! I really felt sorry for her when Radha’s shenanigans landed Lakshmi in hot water!
I saw negative reviews for that book, most from Indian culture or with more knowledge of India than myself. I am not Indian, have never been to India either so this review is written based on my own experience, my sensitivity and my lack of knowledge of India and its customs. Yet to me, this was a vivid and heartwarming story about dysfunctional marriages and making your dreams come true. It’s about complicated sisterhood, found families and solid friendship. It’s also about castes, customs, traditions and self-discovery.
I also think that the narrator Ariyan Kassam did a very good job.
Thanks for reading.