STORY WRITTEN BY LINDA STEIN
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In “Henna House,” Nomi Eve gives readers a fascinating glimpse into the world of Yemenite Jewry — a world now lost since that community, which faced deadly pogroms after the founding of Israel — escaped en masse by airlift to Israel through Operation Magic Carpet.
Rich in historic detail, this novel was chosen by Jewish Learning Venture as the One Book, One Community selection for 2014-15.
Told through the voice of Adela, who grows from childhood to adulthood in Yemen in the years before World War II, Eve’s writing, replete with imagery and dreams, calls to mind that of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
While the Jewish community in Aden was more modern and worldly, Adela grows up in a small village in the northern hill country of Yemen where life continued in older patterns. Adela, whose father is in poor health, lives in fear that the “Confiscator” will remove her from her home and give her to a Muslim family if he should die before she can be wed, although a childhood betrothal to a cousin offers her some protection.
Some of the most compelling scenes take place when Eve describes the custom of Yemenite women, both Muslim and Jewish, of having intricate henna designs applied to their hands, arms, feet and legs. While most often done before a wedding, some women wore henna much of the time. This passage describes henna being applied to a bride:
“She began by measuring out the ingredients for her waxy mixture—resin, myrrh, frankincense, and iron sulfate — mixing them together and heating them in a high-sided pan over a fire until it was like molten wax. She also added sage and mint extract … Meanwhile, Aunt Rahel crouched on the floor by the bride’s right foot, dipped her stylus into the little bowl, and began to draw on the balls of her feet … She was executing a variation on a traditional grain of wheat design, alternating stylized grains with waves and crescents in a tight spiral.”
And the language of henna, woven like an intricate pattern throughout the story, becomes a turning point in the plot.
In an interview, Eve, 46, said that while she was growing up, she was close to her father’s cousin’s wife, who came to Israel from Yemen.
“I am named for her late husband who was killed in 1967,” she said. “He was a paratrooper. And I was born in 1968.” Eve, who grew up in Elkins Park and still lives there, said her family would spend summers in Israel.
Eve visualizes scenes before she writes and those scenes compel her.
“Every writer that you talk to will tell you they have a different process,” Eve said. “I am a visual and image oriented writer. I will see a scene and want to make it real. I write from vivid picture I see in my head, like a movie still. I’ll write from and toward these images.”
Sometimes it’s hard making the transition to real life from hours of writing fiction, such as when picking up the youngest of her three children, ages 10, 12 and 14, at the school playground. People will be speaking to her and she’s still thinking of the characters she’s been writing about, Eve said.
“That’s always a funny time of day,” she said.
Her first book, “The Family Orchard” was published in 2000, but she had three babies in four years and became a full-time mother. Eve eventually began writing again about five or six years ago when her children were older. Once she got the idea for “Henna House,” she wrote quickly finishing it in two years. However, Eve said that she writes many more pages than she actually uses in a manuscript.
Eve, a compelling speaker and raconteur, plans to talk to 100 book clubs this year, both in person and via Skype, and has 72 clubs signed up and has spoken to 22 as of this writing. Check http://nomi-eve.com/. Most of those talks are in the evening so they don’t “interfere with writing but interfere with bedtime. I’m really lucky that my husband and mother are so supportive,” she said. Her husband, Aleister Saunders, is a professor and scientist in biochemistry and acting vice provost for research at Drexel University.
Eve, who earned an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University, also teaches writing at Bryn Mawr College and will be the Drexel University Story Lab writer-in-residence this winter, offering creative writing workshops to adults.