A while back, there was an epic Twitter thread on all of (or at least, a LOT of) the books by South Asian authors coming out in 2020, and hoooooooooooooo boy, did a lot of books get added to my TBR that day! One of those books included The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids, 2020). This book has it all: South Asian characters. LGBT rep. Strong sister relationship. Drama with the parents. Set in…Ireland??? NEAT! It’s been a while since I read fiction set there. Anyway, I finally got to it on my TBR and enjoyed the long days of reading it on my backyard swing (while sweating half to death, of course, because it’s super gross out here right now).
Nishat has come out to her parents, with less-than-stellar results. While there’s no screaming, no threatening, no plans to send her away, they’re cool, chilly, unable to understand why she can’t just change everything about who she is. Unexpectedly, Flávia, a friend she hasn’t seen since early grade school, shows back up in her life, and suddenly, Nishat’s in love. Only there’s a slight problem: Flávia turns out to be the cousin of Nishat’s archenemy at school. Ugh. No worries, though. Nishat’s not even sure if Flávia likes her that way, although signs are pointing to yes…
A business class project has the students forming their own businesses and competing over whose is more successful. Nishat decides, as a nod to her culture, to begin doing henna (painting henna designs on hands). She’s horrified to learn that Flávia, who is not Bengali (she’s Brazilian and Irish), has planned to do the same. Holy cultural appropriation, folks! Sabotage. Theft. Underhandedness. Destruction. Things get a little out of control in this competition, and Nishat isn’t always the person she wants to be. Nishat and her classmates have a lot to learn about and from each other, and maybe Mom and Dad will learn a few things as well.
There’s a lot going on in this story- Nishat’s relationship with her sister Priti, the pressure of exams at school, trying to maintain a relationship with a grandparent over Skype, race-based bullying, fighting with a friend group, a strained relationship with parents over cultural issues, cultural appropriation- but somehow, it all works. Nishat is a typical teenager who doesn’t always make the best choices; she’s impulsive under pressure, a little selfish at times, and occasionally leaps to conclusions. But she’s also dedicated and optimistic, and all of this makes her a well-rounded character.
Her relationship with younger sister Priti, who is sometimes the more mature of the two, is the kind that will make you wish you had a younger sister (if you don’t. I do not). Priti stands by her side no matter what, is always there to support her and offer up whatever Nishat needs, and calls her on her selfish behavior when the situation warrants it. Priti is very much the voice of reason here, and I loved her.
The bullying is painful to read. There are obvious content warnings here for racism and homophobia, and one for a forced outing, which can be upsetting (kudos to Ms. Jaigirdar, who has this warning written into the opening pages. I love that these kinds of heads-ups are becoming the norm). When you’re able to handle these topics, this is a kaleidoscope of a novel, with all the issues moving and sliding around each other to become one colorful design that fits together perfectly.
Super fun YA with great multi-dimensional characters in an interesting setting. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms. Jaigirdar.