Sometime in the middle years of my twenties, my sister and my cousin hennaed my breasts on a lark, using a dime-store-quality kit we bought off a mysterious woman at a street fair. It was summer. The air was heavy. The moon was full. It all made sense at the time.
I had no idea how very close we came to correctly approximating the tradition of henna, which I did not understand to be such a robust and ritualized art form until I read Nomi Eve’s Henna House.
Historical fiction thrills me in concept and reality; the idea that while being entertained I might also learn something vital; the possibility of acquiring – by osmosis! by accident! – facts and words and wisdom missing from my vocabulary and worldview. In Henna House we get not just the epic saga of a young Yemenite Jew’s coming of age but also a geography lesson and an environmental education as Adela Damari and her family trek mid-20th century through Arabia to the newly-formed Israel. Thanks to this book, I learned as much about this foreign land as I learned about her complex people as I followed them through the course of a life- and land-altering generation.
And in the sort of sensual language too often forsaken in this age of sound bites and 140-character Tweets, I learned about henna, “the red geometric flurry … that seemed to tell stories at once simple and incomprehensible” and the rituals that make the hennaing process, exclusive to the domain of women, as intimate and dreamy and communal as it was when I naively limned it in my young adulthood.
Henna House abounds with stories of hennaed women: aunts and sisters and neighbors and cousins like Adela and “Hani [who] thrust her hand into mine, asking me one hundred questions all at once about the fairy tales I knew, the secrets I didn’t, the stories I would maybe be so kind as to finish for her, for she had come to a point in the plot that needed a fresh perspective.”
If it is stories about women and their mysterious ways that you crave … if you believe that shared stories can bind and color us … Henna House is not to be missed.
Update: Henna House is one of twenty-one books recently called out as Great Group Reads for 2015 by the Women’s National Book Association.