Henna House, Nomi Eve's latest novel, is the saga of a Yemeni Jewish family written in the form of a memoir by the family's youngest daughter Adela. She starts off life in a small Yemeni mountain village, and we follow her through the 1920's and into WWII, all the way to Israel. As the youngest child and her parents' only daughter, Adela is able to give the reader a unique look into a culture full of tradition, mysticism and beautiful history. But a sense of fear and impending catastrophe also suffuses the story as increasingly antisemitic laws passed by Yemen's Imam cast a pall over Adela's life. Her father grows sickly, and her mother desperately searches for a boy suitable for Adela's betrothal in order to save her from being adopted and converted by a Muslim family.
But amid the uncertainty Adela finds joy in the arms of her large extended family, particularly when her aunt Rahel arrives in the village with her husband and daughter and introduces Adela to the ancient tradition of henna body art. This portion of Adela's life, with its ritual and deep sense of timelessness, fascinates her as a child and becomes an important part of her identity as she and her family face hardship from not only outside influences like the Imam, but from family relationships as well. It accompanies her on her physical journeys, carries meanings and symbolism in its designs, and at one point even betrays her deeply.
I found that I was very drawn to Adela's character and her story even without the hook she dropped at the very beginning that one of the people she loved most had met a particularly gruesome end. I found myself drawn into reading more not because of that allusion (in all honesty I'd forgotten about it until the event actually took place near the end of the book) but because Adela's voice, her open depictions and genuine feelings about her everyday life, reached out of the page and took gentle hold of my imagination.
I've mentioned that Adela talks about some of the discrimination she faced as a Jew in a Muslim-dominated culture in Yemen, but I was very impressed by the factual manner in which these details were represented. Never did her character (or through her, author Nomi Eve) rail against Muslims and Islam or any of the religious differences between the two groups. Instead, she offers examples like how Jewish families were not allowed to build their houses higher than their Muslim fellows, or how Jews were not allowed to ride horses, because that was everyday life. She doesn't blame Muslims for the way things are in her writing; she merely states that it's the way things were. This artful way of illustrating inequality without laying blame was very impressive to me, as an outsider. Adela even tells of Muslim and Jewish women borrowing the "stranger magic" of the other group's talismans, for occasions like births and weddings, which seemed particularly poignant to me as a representation of some sort of respect or admiration mutually shared by the groups.
This book was a blend of equal parts fictional family history, physical journey, self-discovery and bittersweet reflection. Adela gains much at the end of her long life journey, which we find out about at the end, including a place in the newly formed Israel ad a life with the man she loves, doing what she loves to do and writing her story. But she loses so much to earn these things, and when she does so, she has no guarantee that she will see any recompense in her life. This old hurt, the dull perpetual sorrow, clings to Adela's words and brought the weight of her entire cultural history down to land squarely in my gut. It's more haunting in its beauty, richness and sorrow than I could ever have imagined when I first picked this book up off the shelf.
If you want a poignant, sometimes painful, and utterly staggering look into a little-known culture that blends Middle Eastern history with Jewish heritage, pick up Henna House by Nomi Eve. While the book itself is a work of fiction, Eve does a wonderful job of listing her resources and inviting the reader to find out more about the histories of families like Adela's. Pick up a copy today.