The Henna Artist

Written by Alka Joshi
Review by Kristen McDermott

This debut novel is as warm and comforting as a cup of chai. The first-person narrator, Lakshmi, is a woman of mysterious origins who lives in Jaipur, a vibrant city in northern India, in 1955. She has found access to the boudoirs of the wealthy and powerful through the quality of her henna designs, her skills as a matchmaker, her reliable supplies of herbal contraceptives, and her warm, compassionate relationships with the upwardly mobile women of the new, independent India.

As the novel begins, she is looking forward to moving into her own home, purchased through her own tireless ingenuity and labor. Her ambitious plans are threatened, however, by the appearance of Radha, the sister she didn’t know she had, whose desperate escape from their home village reminds Lakshmi how precarious her independence is in a nation that still sees women and the poor as second-class citizens.

Joshi has created an unforgettable, complex heroine in Lakshmi, whose practicality and humor are tested in realistic ways. Lakshmi’s profession allows Joshi to reveal her wide knowledge of Indian ayurvedic and herbal medicine, music, cuisine, and culture. The rich descriptions of food, fashion, and the diverse celebrations enjoyed by the Indian upper classes make this a fast and satisfying read that celebrates the power of sisterhood and female friendship.