Set in 1955, right after India gained its independence, The Henna Artist is a story full of compelling setting and cultural details. The wealthy women of Jaipur hire Lakshmi to henna their bodies for a variety of special events. Secretly, they also ask Lakshmi for herbs to help them conceive a child or miscarry one. Lakshmi has her own secrets, including parents in a rural village that she ran away from, and a husband she left. Then a sister arrives that Lakshmi didn’t even know about, and her life is altered forever. Secrets are told and more secrets made, creating characters that are richly drawn and complex. The story is layered with jealousy, compassion, ambition, and tradition.
Lakshmi’s sister, Radha, is thirteen when her mother dies shortly after her father’s death. She has no choice but to leave the village and search for the sister who left before she was born. I empathized with Radha from the moment the other girls in the village called her Bad Luck Girl. A friend tells her how to find Hari, her brother-in-law, in a village ten miles away. With Hari, she continues to Jaipur to find Lakshmi. Her sister takes her in, but her busy life leaves Radha feeling neglected. Her acquaintance with a modern woman, a friend and client of Lakshmi’s, leads her to see movies and read books that put ideas of romance in her head. Her resulting pregnancy throws Lakshmi’s world upside down.
I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of Jaipur that bring to life the sights and sounds of the colorful setting, and I learned a lot about cultural traditions of India. Most interesting to me, though, was the description of the henna art. The design application, and the significance of the drawing details, made Lakshmi the purveyor of much more than beauty. Using herbal teas and snacks along with the henna, she was lauded by her clients as someone who could change your mood and health while she made you beautiful.
I know I’ve truly enjoyed a novel when I immediately download the next book, as I did with this one. Joshi’s Jaipur Trilogy continues with The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. If you are looking for a novel steeped in rich cultural traditions and family duty, this one is for you.
Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).