Review: Henna House + 5 Questions with Nomi Eve

A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Scribner in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.

I’m delighted, today, to have author Nomi Eve on the blog for an interview! Nomi is the author of Henna House, a book that intrigued me from the moment I saw the gorgeous cover. Click here for her answers to my 5 Questions!

An evocative and stirring novel about a young woman living in the fascinating and rarely portrayed community of Yemenite Jews of the mid-twentieth century, from the acclaimed author of The Family Orchard.In the tradition of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Henna House is the enthralling story of a woman, her family, their community, and the rituals that bind them. Nomi Eve’s vivid saga begins in Yemen in 1920, when Adela Damari’s parents desperately seek a future husband for their young daughter. After passage of the Orphan’s Decree, any unbetrothed Jewish child left orphaned will be instantly adopted by the local Muslim community. With her parents’ health failing, and no spousal prospects in sight, Adela’s situation looks dire until her uncle arrives from a faraway city, bringing with him a cousin and aunt who introduce Adela to the powerful rituals of henna tattooing. Suddenly, Adela’s eyes are opened to the world, and she begins to understand what it means to love another and one’s heritage. She is imperiled, however, when her parents die and a prolonged drought threatens their long-established way of life. She and her extended family flee to the city of Aden where Adela encounters old loves, discovers her true calling, and is ultimately betrayed by the people and customs she once held dear. Henna House is an intimate family portrait and a panorama of history. From the traditions of the Yemenite Jews, to the far-ranging devastation of the Holocaust, to the birth of the State of Israel, Eve offers an unforgettable coming-of-age story and a textured chronicle of a fascinating period in the twentieth century. Henna House is a rich, spirited, and sensuous tale of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness, and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart.

Henna House is the story of Adela, a Jewish girl growing up in Yemen. She lives in constant fear of The Confiscator–a government official who’s been appointed to take orphaned children who have not been betrothed, yank them from their families, and adopt (read: enslave) them into Muslim households, according to law. Adela’s father is ill, and her family must find her a suitor, but things don’t seem to work in her favor.

Adela does eventually become engaged, and fall in love, but the two don’t always come together as expected. The book is laced with love, intrigue, and ritual, and the enriching and rewarding influences of the women in Adela’s life. Despite the fact that her mother seems to hate her (though wasn’t quite certain why), Adela’s cousin, sisters-in-law, and aunt are all loving and kind, and attempt to support and teach Adela what her mother cannot.

The henna rituals in the book are what fascinated me the most, going in, and their emphasis in the book was everything I’d hoped for–beautiful, enduring, and utterly captivating. While I knew henna tattooing was representative, I’d had no idea how much culture and symbolism infuses every stroke of a henna marking. I was absorbed by the depictions of the Nights of Henna, and the relationships between this family of women.

As far as my review goes, I’m not quite sure how to rate Henna House. Adela’s narrative voice was unique and set a mystical, contemplative mood that I liked. The prose is intelligent and thoughtful, the setting notable and painted with a vivid brush. The plot held my interest, and I never felt like putting it down. It did feel, though, like it was two separate stories at times–one about Adela and the men in her life, and another about Adela and the women. The two stories really only seem to intersect for a brief moment (though, when they do, it’s shocking!). As much, though, as I enjoyed both stories, the book dragged for me a bit, especially in the middle, and the last few chapters after the war felt a little tacked on, for me. So the pacing was a little jumbled.

With all that in mind, though, I would still recommend Henna House. The writing is lyrical and sensual (but not overtly sexual, so have no fear, book groups!), and the subject matter was fascinating. I’ve never read a book about the Jewish population in Yemen before (or any book set in Yemen, for that matter!) and the whole history of the culture and their traditions was fairly engrossing. I liked it, and you might really love it!


Many thanks to Nomi for being here on the blog today! She’s been so gracious and delightful in our chats, and I love her answers so much! I hope you all do, too!

1. I’m always looking for cultural diversity in my reading, but the Yemeni Jews in Henna House were a first for me! What made you light upon this group, in particular, and want to tell their story?

NE: My father is from Israel. Growing up, my family spent summers in Israel, visiting our family there. A cousin of my father’s married a Yemenite woman whose family lived through much of the history that I write about (Operation Magic Carpet). I was very close to this cousin — I still am. I grew up spending time with her in her kitchen, eating her delicious food, listening to her wonderful stories. She inspired me to write Henna House.

2. We must discuss the henna! My fascination with the beauty and cultural significance of henna tattooing is the reason I wanted to read Henna House in the first place, and I was so fascinated by all the mysticism and symbolism of each tiny stroke in each marking. Can you tell me more about what led you to write about it?

NE: I’ve been fascinated with henna ever since I came across an image in a nineteenth century travelogue. The book detailed a journey through the middle east by an American pastor. It was generously illustrated by gorgeous etchings of local scenes and local customs. This image of a “tattooed woman” captivated me. She had facial and hand markings. I made copies of the image and literally stared at it for years. The woman was so beautiful and had the most mysterious look in her eyes. I wanted to know who she was, what her life was like. Then, when I started writing about Yemenite Jews and found about about their henna rituals I was hooked. I learned that all the Jews of the Arab lands had their own precious henna rituals. In a time and place when women were excluded from traditional spheres of intellectual and artistic accomplishment henna provided an opportunity for women to attain knowledge, experiment with creative form, and transmit their own precious heritage.

3. I was so fascinated by Adela’s narration of her story: it has a somewhat detached, dreamlike quality, and sometimes she gives us several alternate stories about the same point in time. I thought about her character and narrative style for a long time, and I’d love to know your thoughts about why she shares her story this way.

NE: My main character Adela, is a first person narrator. Like most of us she doesn’t have perfect recall. Some parts of her past are very vivid and clear to her. But other parts are more fuzzy. Sometimes she uses other people’s perspectives to fill in the gaps of her own memory. For example, when she writes, “Auntie Aminah said that…” Or Masudah told me that…” But in other places, she uses alternate stories as a way of bridging the gap between the blank spaces in her own memory. And there’s more to it than that. Metaphors play an important role for me in my storytelling. Metaphors allow my characters to experience the most important moments of their lives as spiritual moments redolent with symbol and meaning. Adela’s reliance upon alternate version of the “truth” is the hallmark of how metaphors are woven into reality throughout the narrative, and of how metaphors adorn reality, making it simultaneously more mysterious and more full of meaning.

4. In the beginning, Adela says she wonders whether “stories submit to authors, or authors submit to the takes that tangle up their guts.” Which do you think it is?

NE: In my personal experience, authors are the ones who submit. I can honestly say that my “guts” are tangled up with a handful of stories that I will wrestle with my whole life. I think that stories have their way with authors. The best we can do is to let them.

5. What’s up next for you? What are you working on?

NE: I’m three quarters of the way through the story of the boy I was named for. It is fiction, but is inspired by a Holocaust orphan who made his way alone across Europe, was ultimately smuggled into safety and survived against great odds. This is a story I’ve been “wrestling with” for a long time. I think I’ve finally figured out how to tell it.

Thank you again, Nomi! Henna House releases tomorrow, and you can find a free excerpt on Nomi Eve’s blog, if you’d like a sample. Happy reading, everyone!

3 Stars

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