Henna House


This extraordinary family saga begins in Yemen in 1923. Five-year-old Adela is the ninth child and only daughter and lives in fear of ‘confiscation’ under the Muslim ‘Orphan’s Decree’ should her sick father die prematurely. Hence her mother’s desperate and sometimes cruel machinations to find her a husband. Although not a meekly conformist child, Adela’s days are filled with mundane tasks, like her mother, cousins and sisters-in-law, but when she meets her cousin Hani she is drawn into the seductive and ritualistic art of henna. All the primary characters here are female and, although deferential to the men, these are forceful women living in difficult times. Their sacred rituals bind them in their tasks of marriage, child-rearing and housekeeping, and a woman’s domain is inviolable. Bridal henna and the ‘shackles of beauty’ are definitely a woman’s domain.

I was enchanted by this book. It is a meticulously researched coming-of-age story with all the strictures of childhood and the complexities of maturity. The prose style is clean, elegant and descriptive. Nowhere does the narrative stray from its purpose or become too colloquial. It is never embellished, never wordy, and the events flow with vivid detail of everyday family life, multi-layered threads, complex relationships, ritual and mysticism.

My one complaint is that the prologue is too explicit, hindering the story a little because having been told the ‘what’ I was sometimes impatient for the ‘why’. But with that small exception this was a captivating read, one where it is possible for the reader to delve briefly into the extraordinary lives of this little-known community of Yemenite Jews. Jewish phrases are successfully scattered within the text without overburdening it, and Henna House pays a special tribute to Jewish history. Highly recommended.

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(US) $26.00
(CA) $29.99

(US) 9781476740270




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