So, I thought I was finished reading YA. It seems like the older I get, the more difficult it is for me to connect to these young characters. I find it harder and harder to get invested in their stories, but every so often, there’s a book that sucks me right back in. This is one such book.
I mean, do you see this cover? Oh my goodness, this cover is gorgeous. Exquisite. Truly, I couldn’t have more praise for it. It immediately made me want to crack this book open and devour it. And devour I did.
The Henna Wars follows our main character, Nishat, a Bengali girl who begins her tale by coming out to her parents after the wedding of a distant relative. Not only does this cause her parents to distance themselves from her, she also discovers that an old childhood friend, who she has a major crush on, is the cousin of a classmate who has spread racist rumors about her family to their entire school. To make matters worse, her crush, Flávia, has decided to use the same idea in a school project: create a business around henna.
I’m going to talk about what I liked before going on to what left me wanting to scream. This book really did keep me captivated. I could not put it down and devoured it in one sitting. I was so in Nishat’s head that the unfairness of her situation actually brought me to tears. I hurt for her. Truthfully, I think the romance between Nishat and Flávia could have used some more work, but it wasn’t terrible. It came across as juvenile puppy love (which, ya know, this is YA so it fits) and instalove and lacked the foundation necessary for their romance to take my breath away. Still, I did root for them.
Nishat’s relationship with her younger sister, Priti, is truly a highlight in this book. I loved how supportive Priti was. She was the first person Nishat came out to, and her unwavering love for her sister made things seem a little less bleak. That being said, there were slight issues I had with her as well, including a point I will talk about later as well as her decision to go to a party hosted by Chyna, who had spread racist rumors about their family. Priti spoke about it all happening so long ago and how it was time to move on, but my issue with that is that Chyna never even apologized for it. It’s one thing to consider someone’s apology after they’ve had a change of heart or want to make amends, but that’s not what happened. To suggest “getting over” something (Chyna’s racism towards Nishat) when that was still happening was just wild to me. (Not that it mattered, since even Nishat attends one of Chyna’s parties in a breathtaking display of hypocrisy.)
I suppose now is as good a time as any to get into the parts I struggled with.
This book deals with some very difficult issues, including homophobia, racism, and cultural appropriation. Honestly, I felt like these issues could have been handled better. There were things that got settled seemingly off-screen that left me feeling bereft of a proper resolution in favor of wrapping things up in a pretty bow at the end of the book.
For example, Nishat’s parents. Their switch from disapproving to supportive was jarring and sudden. Throughout this book, Nishat’s parents had been disapproving (Nishat overhears a conversation in which they decide to let her ‘figure things out’ and how her lesbianism is wrong) at best and harmful (they are cold and distant with her and even out her to the distant relative who got married at the beginning of the book) at worst. There is even a scene in which her mother suggests that she make the right choice and consider eventually marrying a man some day instead.
Only two scenes come to mind in which I can sort of see them starting to change their minds. The first is when Nishat is outed to the entire school. They are furious on her behalf, only for us to find out that they are upset because family might discover Nishat’s a lesbian. (To be fair, homosexuality is a sin punishable by death in their home country of Bangladesh.) The second time is when Nishat’s henna stall for the school project is vandalized. Just those two little instances, and then suddenly at the end of the book they are supportive of her having a girlfriend and inviting that girlfriend over for dinner. It just didn’t really connect with me.
Another example is one of Nishat’s best friends, Jess. Nishat is close with two girls, Jess and Chaewon, and the three had initially planned to do their business project together. After Nishat has her heart set on doing henna for the project, things start to fall apart, as both Jess and Chaewon aren’t as onboard with the plan as she’d hoped. Worse, Nishat’s crush Flávia (and also Chyna) decide to also do henna for the school project, bringing forth the theme of cultural appropriation. Nishat becomes even more determined to win the competition. My biggest issue with Jess in the way this panned out was her insistence that Nishat “always makes things about race” after Nishat (rightfully) pointed out that what Flávia and Chyna were doing was cultural appropriation. It’s something that is honestly so dismissive of the very real issues with racism that Nishat was facing that it left me harboring negative feelings towards Jess, and worse is that the issue is just swept under the rug. It’s never mentioned again. WHY? Ugh.
On the topic of cultural appropriation, Flávia is initially offended at Nishat pointing it out, stating that art doesn’t belong to anyone and that she is not bound by arbitrary lines. Oh boy. I honestly wasn’t sure a romance could develop between them when their ideals were so wildly opposite. It seemed like there were times where even Nishat seemed to forget about her hurt and outrage towards Flávia’s blatant appropriation of henna just because Flávia was so attractive. And ultimately, when Flávia finally understands and apologizes, it just feels so lackluster and too little-too late that it annoyed me more than anything else.
Lastly, the homophobia. About halfway through this book, Nishat is outed via an anonymous text message to the entire school. We find out later that Priti is inadvertently responsible for Nishat being outed. This really upset me, especially since Priti has been the biggest support Nishat has in the book. To find out it was inadvertently her fault, I felt so betrayed on Nishat’s behalf. Worse, Priti didn’t come clean about who outed Nishat, even though she knew. Seriously, it made my heart hurt.
Ultimately, this book is a 3/5 for me. It did keep me engaged and I truly couldn’t put it down, but there were too many issues for me to be truly satisfied with the book’s resolution.