In The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar, Nishat is one of the only Muslim girls at her private school in Dublin. She’s also a lesbian, and isn’t sure how to behave when her parents don’t approve. When her school organizes a competition about who can form the best small business, she throws herself into it as a distraction. But a childhood acquaintance, Flávia also forms a henna business, and the two are thrown into direct competition—which is made further complicated by Nishat’s crush on Flávia.
I really liked Nishat as a protagonist. She’s clever and talented, though not without her flaws. Her tendency to be selfish doesn’t turn the reader off, though, and seeing her grow as a person throughout the plot is nice. Besides Nishat, Priti is the clear standout. She, with her humor and bright spirit and unwavering support of her sister, easily became my favorite by far.
On the other hand, I wish Flávia had had equally strong characterization, though, because she seems a weaker character in comparison. I liked her, but I also think more could have been done to give her a more rounded personality. Regardless of this, though, I did really like her relationship with Nishat overall. I also wish Ali had had a stronger presence throughout the novel.
Related to this, I think the bullies at the school should have been dealt with a little more directly. Nishat and her friends interact with them, but the absence of teachers intervening was, to me, conspicuous. I feel that even in a conservative Catholic school, there should have been some kind of discipline to address the bullying happening on their property. As it is, the administration only did the bare minimum, and I wish I knew why. This is kind of a minor criticism, though.
I absolutely loved the themes about family, friendship, and having courage to be yourself. The discussions about cultural appropriation are also fantastically written and explained in a way that even young teens can understand and perhaps start to engage in this complex conversation.
In the end, The Henna Wars is not only an impressive debut novel, but also a cute, clean, wholesome romance with excellent representation of queer girls of color. Though there are some difficult subjects, such as bullying and hate speech, these are treated with sensitivity, and this is still very much a feel-good book with a good cast, a fun plot, and a heartwarming message.
Overall rating: 8.2/10