The Henna Artist is a recent publication and the first novel of author Alka Joshi, who is an American citizen of Indian heritage. Her book is the story of a young woman in India called Lakshmi, who is married off at a young age to a man who becomes abusive. This is the story of her escape to another city, finding herself in a new craft as a henna artist and an expert on botany and their healing powers. She manages to find her way into the palaces of Jaipur and she deals admirably with all the people she meets along the way from Maharanis and Maharajas in the palaces, to street urchins who become trusted confidantes, friends of both sexes and supporters of her craft to professionals who see her ultimate worth.
I loved the book on so many levels, the fact that Alka had captured the essence of India with its smells, chaos, poverty, women's roles and the caste system. Having lived in India, I admired how much of it was authentic and accurate and yet the detail she conveyed was absorbable by all - there was a glossary of terms, there were explanations and asides, which meant that it didn't matter whether you knew India or not, you could still understand the terms and the nuances and follow the plot in every detail.
The storyline is loosely based on real lives and also mirrors some of the aspects of Indian life which are not often dealt with. Arranged marriages, abuse within the marriage, the need to produce children, and the inevitable stranglehold of the caste system on so many Indians.
Lakshmi, the principal heroine, is a strong woman who dares to cross many of the established taboos and boundaries and in doing that she is blessed with a mother in law who teaches her all she knows and enables her to leave the confines of an abusive relationship. She forges a new life for herself in another city and she develops strong ties to the palace and finds a collaborator in a lovely urchin called Malik, who is Muslim. She struggles on a daily basis to overcome prejudice and power and then deals with the curve balls that come her way, the appearance of her ex-husband and her new sister.
The story takes on many twists and turns but it is all beautifully connected and relevant. It is gripping yet sensitive, it is a raw projection of womanhood and yet so encouraging. It is lyrical, yet full of common sense and useful sayings to help you through your day. It is cheeky and fun and ultimately everyone has a role to play in the unfolding saga which is satisfying and makes a rewarding read. It came as no surprise to hear that it actually took Alka Joshi ten years to complete this project and it is in my opinion well worth its current success as everything has been meticulously planned in her storyline and the denouement. It was for me a thoroughly enjoyable read and I am so looking forward to her next book.