Title: The Henna Artist
Author: Alka Joshi
Published: March 2020
Lakshmi Shastri has spent years carving out a life for herself as a henna artist after fleeing her abusive husband and backward rural village for the Rajasthan capital. Well-versed in apothecary and the miraculous properties of herbs, her services (the effects of which are far more than just aesthetic) are highly sought after by upper-caste women, and Lakshmi’s success brings her within inches from her, and her country’s, ultimate goal: total independence. That is, until the past she has so desperately tried to run from comes knocking at her door…
The Henna Artist is a newly published (March 2020) novel written by Alka Joshi, an American-Indian debut author. According to the Joshi, the inspiration behind the books is a re-imagining of her mother’s life.
The book is set in nineteen-fifties India just a few, short years after it’s independence from the British empire.
It begins in the city of Jaipur, the capital of the northern state of Rajasthan. There we meet Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties working as a henna artist, problem solver, and a confidant of sorts to the influential and high-cast women of the city.
After years of hard work, she’s close to achieving a goal she’s pursued since escaping her arranged, abusive marriage. It’s at this point a younger sister she didn’t know existed turns up at her doorstep escorted by the husband she abandoned.
The Henna Artist is precisely the type of story I love: deceptively straight forward but with a hidden depth that’s slowly uncovered.
In the beginning, it paints a clear picture of Lakshmi and her story. How she left her evil, abusive husband, and through grit, determination, and self-reliance, fought her way to personal and financial independence.
How she, the helpless victim of her sex, cast, and economic status, has risen above her poor start in life to overcome the obstacles she’s faced.
All of it is true. The book paints an intimate and unflattering picture of India’s social, economic, and gender inequality. How difficult it is to be a poor woman or a woman at all.
But, as the story progresses, this image begins to fray at the seams. Lakshmi’s story isn’t quite as simple as she paints it. Her rise in society comes with its compromises, and she’s had some help along the way.
As more and more of her—and her family’s—past is revealed, she has to face the choices, deals, compromises, and bargains made to get to where she is. In doing so, Lakshmi’s carefully constructed story about herself is challenged. As is her ideas about the future.
Although not a story about India’s fight for independence, the casts system, or the severe gender inequality that still plague the country, the author deftly weaves in social critique and a human perspective on these issues.
However, this criticism is artfully hidden in plain sight. The plot never goes above the human level. Despite a social conscience, this story centers on Lakshmi.
This is a novel written by a grown woman.
Of course, most books are written by adults. However, despite being a debut author, Alka Joshi is a middle-aged woman, and it’s apparent in her writing. Her characters have the maturity and depth of people who’s reached an age where they’re not trying to find out who they are. Or what it means to be an adult. They have all of that figured out.
I find it refreshing to read a story about a thirty(ish) woman that’s not about her finding a husband or having babies. Lakshmi is a character that, despite society’s norms, is unapologetic about not wanting children and a woman’s right to choose.
She’s also a flawed character, but not unforgivably so. She’s an adult that’s made choices, some good, some bad, and some she just has to live with.
This maturity is also reflected in the plot. During the book, the author asks some difficult questions.
She also doesn’t try to work around reality. There are situations in the book where the characters have to face facts. Where, no matter how unjust the situation, there’s no magic way to work around it. There’s no glossing over the consequences. A choice has to be made even though all available options are painful.
As for the writing, I found it very pleasant.
In The Henna Artist, regardless of the scene or setting, the writing is almost entirely focused on the characters. The author has a straightforward voice that isn’t preoccupied with long descriptions. I don’t mind those myself, but I also appreciate books that allow the characters to indirectly show us the world.
Reflecting on this book after finishing it, I found this lack of flowery descriptions really refreshing. As a Scandinavian, when India is pictured in our part of the world, it’s either negatively about social and gender issues. Or, it’s elephants, colors, and markets, with sentences like, “The air smelled of spices.”
What you get in The Henna Artist, is a more muted, everyday India where people don’t suddenly start Bollywood dancing in the streets. They’re just people, living ordinary lives the best they can.
To me, that made this book feel more honest.
As for negatives, I don’t really think there is any part of this book that is objectively negative. What you will and will not like about it will be a matter of personal taste.
Personally, I had issues with the little sister and parts of the plot that featured her. But, my dislike is of a more general nature. I have a hard time with the standard “naive teenage girl” persona. The one who does stupid shit because a boy said he liked her. It’s a character trope I’ve never identified with, and feel is overused. It’s one I have a problem with, in whatever story it’s featured.
However, I didn’t feel it was a huge issue. It also worked really well for setting up the conflict of the second half of the book. There were specific points in the story where I was literally pacing in my kitchen while listening, aggregated that this stupid little brat was going to ruin everything.
So, from that point of view, the character worked really well.
The Henna Artist was a wonderful read.
It’s a book that should appeal to many, but especially to women in their thirties and older.
It’s a story about finding the courage to go your own way, make your own decisions, and accept the consequences. But also to reevaluate truths you’ve taken for granted as age and life-experience allows us a more multifaceted outlook on life.
I especially enjoyed the loving yet restrained description of India.
It was refreshing to read a portrait of this country that, from my Scandinavian point-of-view, don’t rely on cliches. There’s no “funny Indian accents,” no outdrawn descriptions of diarrhea from “spicy Indian food,” or a single Bollywood dance, I loved that.
I sincerely hope this book gets the attention and sales it deserves. I would love to read more books by Alka Joshi. She has a beautiful, mature voice that delivers entertaining, believable female characters. I hope I’ll get the chance to meet more of them.
My Rating: 8/10
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