The Painted Designs of Yemenite Jewish Women
A review of the novel Henna House by Nomi Eve
The Story: born in a remote village of the Kingdom of Yemen, Adela Damari moves through childhood, unloved by her mother, hated by her brothers and yet adored by her ailing father. His love won’t save her, because if he dies before she is engaged to marry, the Confiscator will take her away and place her in a Muslim family. That fear only abates when Adela joins her many female relatives observing and then learning the ancient Jewish tradition of Henna. With this, her life becomes one with the intricate artwork and mystical patterns, which fade only to come alive again, each time with the reapplication’s new and captivating pattern.
When it comes to the history of Yemenite Jews, I sadly know only the tiniest smattering, so obviously I’m curious to learn more. Since I prefer to let historical fiction be my teacher, the idea of reading something that sounded as intimate as this was irresistible. As personal as this story is, it is a sweeping one as well. It starts in Yemen in the small town in 1920 and follows Adela throughout almost all of her life and travels. At the heart of this is the henna house together with the people who had the greatest effect on Adela’s life. In particular, the latter are two of her cousins Hani and Asaf. Hani becomes Adela’s best friend and her gateway into the world of henna; Asaf is the boy who saves her life, first through his love and again through his betrayal.
Of course, these aren’t the only characters here, but the cast is so expansive that it would be a waste of time to discuss them all. Even so, Eve is able to bring them together so vividly that we feel we are among our own family and community, and understand, almost instinctively, where each of them fits into Adela’s life. With this, we have the backdrop of the henna and all that surrounds this amazing ritual. This comes to us through a myriad of fantastical fables and legendary accounts ranging from beautiful miracles to horrific tragedies, all wrapped in the mystical cloak of the symbols on these women’s bodies.
The way Eve has written this story it is almost as if the henna itself is the main protagonist and through it, this cast of characters acts out these stories, scripted through its intricate designs. The beauty of Eve’s prose here is so rich and luminous that it practically dances off the page as if it was alive. Yet, we also get the feeling that in some places the henna is actually secondary – as if it is merely the landscape for the action of the book. These two opposite feelings work as a metaphor for henna itself. When it is applied, it is dark, sharp and easy to see – unmistakably there; then it slowly fades until it almost disappears into the wearers’ skin.
By now, it should be obvious how much I enjoyed this book, and it would have gotten a full five out of five stars from me, if it hadn’t been for one small problem. What I’m talking about is a passage near the end of the book that felt very flat and plain in comparison to the rest of the book. Usually I would say eliminating this from the book would be a good solution, but this passage is actually necessary to the story, it just lacked the flourish of the rest of the narrative and seemed a little rushed. Even so, I can’t take off more than half a star for this, and I’m still highly recommending this book.
“Henna House” by Nomi Eve published by Scribner (a division of Simon & Schuster), will be released on August 12, 2014 and is available from The Book Depository, Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, from iTunes as an iBook or from and IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader copy of this book via NetGalley.