Henna House

A Novel

LIST PRICE $12.99

About The Book

“A touching coming-of-age story” (Publishers Weekly) in the tradition of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, about a young woman, her family, their community and the customs that bind them, from “a storyteller of uncommon energy and poise” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times).

This vivid saga begins in Yemen in 1920. Adela Damari’s parents’ health is failing as they desperately seek a future husband for their young daughter, who is in danger of becoming adopted by the local Muslim community if she is orphaned. With no likely marriage prospects, Adela’s situation looks dire—until she meets two cousins from faraway cities: a boy with whom she shares her most treasured secret, and a girl who introduces her to the powerful rituals of henna. Ultimately, Adela’s life journey brings her old and new loves, her true calling, and a new life as she is transported to Israel as part of Operation On Wings of Eagles.

Rich, evocative, and enthralling, Henna House is an intimate family portrait interwoven with the traditions of the Yemenite Jews and the history of the Holocaust and Israel. This sensuous tale of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness—and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart—will captivate readers until the very last page.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Henna House includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Adela Damari’s parents desperately seek a husband for their young daughter to protect her from the Orphans’ Decree, which mandates that any unbetrothed Jewish orphan be adopted by a Muslim family. With her father’s health failing and no marriage prospects in sight, Adela’s situation looks dire until two cousins enter her life: Asaf, to whom she quickly becomes promised, and Hani, who introduces Adela to the mysterious and powerful ritual of henna. Suddenly, Adela’s eyes are opened to the world: she begins to understand what it means to love. But when her parents die and a drought threatens their city, Adela and her extended family flee to Aden, where Adela falls in love, discovers her true calling, and is ultimately betrayed by the people and traditions closest to her.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. An epigraph from the Song of Songs opens the book. Read the entire passage in context (http://biblehub.com/niv/songs/1.htm). How is it an appropriate opening to the novel?
 
2. The characters in this story are Jews who live, for most of the book, in a predominantly Muslim area. How does this affect their lives both practically and in the ways they think about themselves and their role in society? What do you make of the ways both cultures borrow from each other’s rituals? Are these groups as separate as they seem to be?
 
3. In the early part of the story, young Adela is said to be cursed because every groom her parents line up for her passes away. When, if ever, is she freed from this curse?
 
4. “You must act the part,” the dye mistress tells Adela before her scheduled wedding to Mr. Musa. “I often take no joy in my spinsterhood; I have no babes to fill my arms, and yet by acting the part of it, I convince myself that I am not lonely. And sometimes it works” (pp. 107–8). Do you believe that you can make yourself happy by acting the part? Do you think Adela believes it?
 
5. What really happened to Mr. Musa? Did Hani have anything to do with his death? Does Adela believe so?
 
6. Henna serves many roles: a wedding ritual, a charm, and a way for women to bond with one another. Discuss what happens in the henna house when the women adorn one another and how it changes Adela’s relationships with them once she is allowed to join in. Why do you think her mother wanted to keep her away for so long?
 
7. In many places in the story—the death of Hani’s twin sisters (p. 112), Asaf’s return (p. 245), and the discovery of Hani and Asaf’s affair (p. 269)—there is no definitive recounting of what actually happened, only a series of alternate versions of events. Does this make them seem more or less true? Should the reader question the events presented throughout the rest of the novel?
 
8. When Adela journeys from Qaraah to Aden, she is confronted for the first time with modernity, and in the end, her life butts up against the well-known historical events of World War II. How does this juxtaposition enhance the story? Does it feel jarring? Think about the parts of the culture and traditions of the old way of life Adela leaves behind as she moves on, and what she takes with her. How do these changes mirror those that are happening in Adela’s perception of her place in the world?
 
9. Consider the role of books and writing in this story, from Uncle Zecharia’s Torah to Hani’s henna book to the lessons Adela gives the Habbani women on the road to Aden. In what ways is Adela’s life transformed when she learns to read and write? How is the written word viewed as its own sort of magic in this story?
 
10. At times, there is a great tension between Elohim, the traditional Jewish deity, and other gods and personal beliefs. Think about Adela’s childhood idols and the Muslim beads Jewish women put on their children for protection (p. 94). And when Binyamin is confronted by Adela’s brother about not going to synagogue, Adela admits that she doesn’t mind, as she and Binyamin both believe that Elohim is everywhere (pp. 239–40). How does this tension express itself in the things characters believe throughout the story, and in what ways does it reflect their development? Is the tension between organized religion and personal belief ultimately resolved?
 
11. “Do stories submit to authors?” Adela asks. “Or do authors submit to the tales that tangle up their guts?” (p. 2) Which do you believe is true? In what ways is a story shaped by its writer? Consider the many tales and stories told throughout this book, and especially the fact that the entire narrative is presented as Adela’s story, written—figuratively if not literally—in henna (p. 2). How much do we shape the stories of our lives, and how much are we shaped by them?
 
12. Adela and her family are refugees in Israel in the last part of the story, and the situation Adela describes in the refugee camp, rife with disease and deplorable living conditions, is terrible. Were you aware of Operation On Wings of Eagles and the repatriation of Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia before reading the book? Do you know of similar situations today?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The historical note at the end of the book lists several resources the author used in her research about the lives of Yemeni Jews, including The Jews of the British Crown Colony of Aden, A Winter in Arabia, and The Jews of Yemen. Pick one of these books and read it, and then discuss the ways Henna House veered from history and how it was faithful to actual events. Alternatively, find a copy of The Magic Carpet, which tells more about Operation On Wings of Eagles, and discuss the importance of this true but little-known piece of history.
 
2. The beauty and artistry of henna is lavishly described in this story. To see pictures of henna application and to learn more about the history and modern applications of henna, visit the Web site www.hennabysienna.com and its accompanying blog, A Research Blog About the History, Culture, and Religious Significance of Henna. Discuss the techniques and rituals you read about in light of the story.

About The Author

Photograph by Patrick Snook

Nomi Eve is the author of The Family Orchard, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University and has worked as a freelance book reviewer for The Village Voice and New York Newsday. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Voice Literary Supplement, Conjunctions, and The International Quarterly. She is currently a lecturer in the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College and lives in Philadelphia with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (August 2014)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476740300

Raves and Reviews

"A welcome glimpse into this historical moment and little-known culture."

– Booklist

"[Eve] is a storyteller of uncommon energy and poise."

– Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"A captivating and evocative novel, at once intensely intimate and sweeping in scope. Nomi Eve is a wonderful writer—compassionate, intelligent, assured—and her deeply felt, richly imagined book will stay with me for a long time."

– Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans

“This was a book I had to read twice:the first time to rush through quickly to find out what will ultimately happento the characters, and the second time to slowly savor the descriptions ofthese marvelous, exotic people and locales. Nomi Eve captivated me.”

– Maggie Anton, author of Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter

"Nomi Eve's novel is a heady mixof henna, history, and the power of words written on skin, sand, andpaper. An engrossing, surprising, compelling read."

– Indira Ganesan, author of As Sweet as Honey

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