Published: August 12, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
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.
I'm really torn about this one. On the one hand, I loved reading about a culture--the Yemeni Jews--about which I knew precisely nothing. I think it is too easy for non-Jewish readers to think that there is only one or two types of Judaism, so I really enjoyed learning about this particular culture. And I think this is the first book I'd ever read that was set in Yemen, so there is that.
I also really loved Eve's writing voice. She's lyrical without getting too wrapped up in her own language. She also strikes a nice balance between explaining culture-specific terms and leaving some for the reader to define for themselves through context. I find that many authors writing about another culture either go one way or the other, so I appreciated that Eve was very moderate in this.
But, there were some technical things about this book that really bothered me. For one thing, I felt like 80% of this book was just backstory for the last 20%. Then, once I hit the point where the story really began, the pace of the book picked up so much it felt like a race to the finish. I do wish that Eve had evened out the tempo of this book so that the reader doesn't feel like the story starts to fly by them right as it starts getting good.
Eve also seemed to have trouble with foreshadowing and extraneous details. There were a number of details that felt like they should be developed into the plot but just never went anywhere. Conversely, the bonafide foreshadowing was very obvious and almost felt like there should be a "dut dut DUN" every time it occured.
There was one other thing that made me very, very uncomfortable about this book. I actually tried to ignore it when evaluating my thoughts of this book, but it ended up coloring how I saw much of the book. At one point in the book, rather early on (which was especially unfortunate as it did color most of the book afterwards for me), there is a rather graphic sexual incident between two prepubescent (ages 10 and 11) children. I have a reasonable tolerance for sexual content in books, but not when it concerns children. To me, it was incredibly inappropriate and, frankly, not even necessary to the story.
So, there are my jumbled thoughts. I honestly don't know if I would recommend this to another reader--there is, after all, much to commend it. However, there are also enough drawbacks to make me question it as a recommendation.
I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review. I received no other compensation for this post.