The Henna Artist: A Book Review

If you’re looking for a good book to read, then I’ve got a great recommendation for you! In June I read The Henna Artist, and it’s one of my recent favorite books. This review is spoiler-free, so keep reading to hear my thoughts!

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi is a novel about a woman named Lakshmi who works as a henna artist in India in the 1950’s.

Now, before you think, “Oh, I don’t like historical fiction,” hear me out: this book is first and foremost about the characters, and the fact that it’s set in the 1950’s is sort of background information. In other words, don’t let this fact alone deter you from reading it!

So, Lakshmi is the henna artist to whom the title refers, and she makes her living decorating the hands and feet of wealthy women in henna. Lakshmi is very skilled with plants and herbs, and in addition to the henna paste, she concocts all sorts of lotions, teas, and other natural medicines. Eager to prove herself and bring honor to her family after running away from her abusive arranged marriage, Lakshmi is all business and little pleasure.

However, her life is forever changed when a young girl named Radha appears at her house and claims to be her sister. Radha was born after Lakshmi left, and the two women have never met—but Radha brings with her bad news: their parents have both died, and now thirteen-year-old Radha needs someone to take her in and provide for her. She is cunning, but she is young, and so she relies on the generosity of her estranged sister.

Even though they’re sisters, Lakshmi and Radha are quite different, and Lakshmi must figure out how to continue being successful with her henna business while also learning how to parent Radha, who can be a handful for Lakshmi at times.

The Henna Artist is a beautiful novel about sisterhood, sacrifices, temptation, the female experience, and deciding what’s most important in our lives.

The Writing

I enjoyed reading this book so much!! This was the perfect book for me to read during a pandemic, because the writing was so vibrant that I was absolutely transported!

The prologue is written in third-person about Radha, but most of the book is written in first person from Lakshmi’s point of view. It was a very immersive reading experience, and I finished it in just a couple days.

In her post-novel Acknowledgements, Joshi describes the great efforts she made in order to create the most lifelike novel possible. In addition to interviewing her own parents, she also contacted family friends for their experiences, extensively read literature to inspire her, and traveled to India. “I wrote this novel for my mother,” she writes; the character Lakshmi is a reimagination of her mother’s life, had she been a henna artist rather than a mother of three by age twenty-two. The amount of care and attention to detail went into writing this book shows, and I respect this novel even more for its heartfelt creation.

Also, I want to note that Joshi included several sections of supplemental information at the end; not only is there a glossary of terms, but also a character list, recipes, and information on the caste system and the history of henna. Most of the Indian terms used in the book were perfectly understandable from context clues, though.

The Characters

I love a strong female protagonist, and Lakshmi is just that! In fact, she is so no-nonsense that it begins to drive somewhat of a wedge between her and curious Radha. At times, Lakshmi can almost be cold, but it is how she has learned to survive as a woman in the city; she intimately understands that life can be unfair to women, and so she is a soldier for her own dream.

Radha, however, is fascinated with the city. An outcast in her rural hometown, Radha is now able to make many new friends in Japuir. As a moody teenager, she realizes that the sister she was so looking forward to meeting has very little time for her, and so her impulse is to rebel against Lakshmi…

In addition to these two main characters, there are many other interesting characters! I adored Malik, who is Lakshmi’s young loyal assistant. The elite women whom Lakshmi does henna for are all unique in their own way, and their husbands and children play into the story as well.

The Plot

Rich women talk, and the gossip is juicy. There’s so many moving parts to this plot—it’s not just about one thing, but how a tangle of things can affect one another. I don’t want to include any spoilers about the plot, but I loved it! The pacing of the book is medium-speed, oscillating between Lakshmi’s successes and failures, and I flew through the 342 pages because I wanted to find out what happened to Lakshmi and Radha!

This story also had a wonderfully packaged, satisfying ending that just made me smile and hug the book after I read the last page.

Closing Thoughts

This year, I’ve been really drawn to books (both intentionally and coincidentally) that feature female characters who study and utilize plants in order to survive and concoct medicines and poisons. So, this was an element of the story I was really intrigued by—how Lakshmi uses these natural products for both decorative and medicinal purposes.

I recommend this book for anyone who likes adult fiction or historical fiction, as well as readers who enjoy strong female protagonists, female bonds, family sagas, and drama—with just a pleasant dash of romance *wink wink*

Out of five stars, this is a solid five-star book for me because in my opinion, there was nothing that was lacking for me! I honestly have no complaints about how Joshi wrote this, and as a story it is everything I want in a book. Excellent read, add it to your To-Read list now!!


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