The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars is a contemporary YA novel about a girl who starts a henna business for a school project and finds herself with a crush on her rival. Nishat has a lot going on: she’s just come out to her parents, who are having trouble accepting a Bengali girl could be a lesbian, and she’s determined to create a successful henna business for her school business project. However, hers isn’t the only henna business as part of the competition, and Nishat finds herself rivals with Flávia, a girl she used to know at primary school who’s now at the same Irish all-girls school as her.

This book has had a lot of hype around it, and it is certainly distinctive, both through the henna rivals premise and just the fact it is a YA novel set at an Irish school. Nishat is a good protagonist, with realistic teen flaws like a tendency to become focused on her own issues and goals at the expense of others’, and her relationship with her sister is a highlight of the book, as they support and bicker with each other. The reader gets to see a lot of Nishat’s emotions and delve into Bengali culture and ideas around cultural appropriation, and it’s good to see how much Nishat wants to stay true to herself.

Part of the plot later in the book does revolve around a forced outing to the whole school, which is a trope used in YA books that I feel doesn’t need to be used so often, and which often isn’t then dealt with in ways that feel supportive towards the character or teenagers reading the book. There’s a lot of plot in The Henna Wars, which meant there perhaps wasn’t enough space to deal more with how Nishat was treated at school after that, or even how her friends reacted. It also felt like some important conversations were cut off or skirted around, and it might’ve been nice to see these followed up on for more resolution.

A readable story with a great protagonist, The Henna Wars is a young adult novel that offers a powerful perspective about staying true to yourself and a teenage love story featuring characters who have to grow and try to learn from their actions.