It's been a while since I read a book that I didn't want to put down - and this was finally one. Henna House is a historical fiction about the Jewish community in Yemen. It takes place primarily in the 1920s and 1930s though it ends with the mass immigration of the community to Israel shortly following its founding (Operation Magic Carpet) and there is an epilogue of sorts that tells you what happened to the major characters in later years.
The narrative is from the perspective of Adela Damari. As a young girl her father is ill and her parents seek to find a fiancé for her because, if she is orphaned before she is married, the law permits the government to take her from her mother and place her with a Muslim family. Adela hopes to be engaged to her neighbour, Binyamin, but he is already promised to another girl. She is almost engaged to several others, but bad fates befall them, making it hard to find her a mate. She is saved when her uncle and cousin arrive and she is promised to her cousin, Asaf.
Adela is a free spirit who does not get along with her mother and her many brothers. Though she is greatly loved by her father, her aunt and some of her sisters-in-law. She and Asaf play at being husband and wife until, at about age 10, he and his father again leave town. Her mother gets the marriage promise annulled for abandonment, but that means Adela must find another potential groom. So she is promised as a second wife to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
When she is at her lowest, another cousin, Hani, enters her life. Hani is like the sister she never had - they share secrets and adventures. Hani and her mother also introduce Adela into the mysterious world of henna. For years Adela is happy in the embrace of her new family and manages to evade an early marriage to an old man. But, as predicted, her parents die when she is about 14 and her aunt and uncle must whisk her away to Aden, which at the time is under British rule, to again avoid the Orphan's Law. I don't want to give away too much - though in some ways it is predictable - but in Aden Adela meets up with many from her past including Binyamin and Asaf. And she is betrayed by those closest to her.
In the end the surviving members of Adela's family make the trek to Israel as part of the mass immigration from Yemen. And her independent spirit helps her to forge a new life there.
The book is interesting not just for the story itself, but for the insight it gives into the lives of Yemeni Jews at the time. The author clearly researched the life and the art of henna thoroughly and manages to be educational and very entertaining. I strongly recommend this book and intend to seek out the author's previous work.