What I want more than anything else in the world is to feel like being myself isn’t something that should be hidden and a secret.
I have to be honest: in the time leading up to reading The Henna Wars, I found myself let down by a few of my anticipated releases. As in multiple. More than once. Which sucks, because few things hurt more than a book you were really, really excited about just…not meeting that excitement.
So it brings me a great amount of joy that when I picked up The Henna Wars hoping to break that streak of disappointment, it did just that. Exactly that. More than that, really. I absolutely adored every bit of this book.
Publisher: Page Street Kids | Pages: 336 | Release Date: May 12, 2020
When Dimple Met Rishi meets Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in this rom com about two teen girls with rival henna businesses.
When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.
Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia, and realizes there might be more to her than she realized.
Content Warnings: homophobia, outing of a character, racism, bullying
On premise alone, The Henna Wars sounded like everything I could want in a contemporary novel. The best part is that Jaigirdar takes that premise, and absolutely delivers it in her execution. There is so much packed between these pages, and Jaigirdar expertly balances the combination of sweet and serious tones.
Undeniably, my favourite aspects were the many varied explorations of relationships (from familial to friendships to romantic) and grappling with the intersections of identity, trying to reconcile the individual parts that make you whole—particularly the parts that some would deem mutually exclusive.
Of course Muslims can be gay. How can anyone think otherwise? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I am the living, breathing proof.
Where The Henna Wars shines strongest is in Nishat, the protagonist. She’s fierce and stubborn and funny and even a little petty, and I couldn’t help but root for her through the novel as she faces shame and rejection after coming out to her parents, in addition to racism at the hands of several classmates. She is a character who knows herself so well, and wants desperately to be herself, and that desire seeps off the page in measures equally inspiring and heartbreaking.
And what I really loved is that Nishat’s individual arc never comes second to her developing relationship with Flávia—which, while cute, also gave us the opportunity to see nuanced explorations of culture, and the lines where appreciation and appropriation blur.
I want to think this is just something girls do—that it means nothing. But I’m one hundred percent sure that the way she’s looking at me is not the way friends look at each other. Her eyes are bright, but hooded. Intense.
That said, my favourite relationship in the whole novel was, without a doubt, that between Nishat and her sister, Priti. Sibling dynamics are often my favourites, and I loved that Nishat had someone to consistently be in her corner (even though, as is inevitable, there are sisterly fights and disagreements). Priti is supportive and provides such a light to The Henna Wars.
It doesn’t seem like much. But sometimes being yourself—really, truly yourself—can be the most difficult thing to be.
Without a doubt, The Henna Wars is a stunning and nuanced debut that packs a formidable punch, and I cannot wait to see what Jaigirdar writes next.
My Rating: 5 Stars