The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (The Henna Artist, #2) by Alka Joshi
Published by Mira Books
Publication date: June 22, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Cultural, Historical
There are many types of satisfaction to be found in reading. One is the excitement of a new voice, a compelling story. But just as good (and sometimes better) is the quiet joy of opening a book and being immediately returned to a place and characters you already know. That’s the case with Alka Joshi’s The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. It’s the sequel to The Henna Artist, a novel I loved last year. The Secret Keeper is set in 1969, twelve years after Lakshmi and her assistant Malik have left Jaipur for a new life in a small town in northern India. Lakshmi is happily married and Malik, a new university graduate, is ready to begin a career. He returns to Jaipur to work for an old friend of theirs, but while much has changed, the past Lakshmi wanted to escape is still there.
Malik and Lakshmi narrate The Secret Keeper as does a new character, Nimmi. She’s a Himalayan tribeswoman whose husband died in an accident immediately before the birth of their second child. She lives in Shimla now with her two young children and is providing Lakshmi with the plants, flowers, and herbs she uses in her natural remedies. She’s also in a relationship with Malik and is afraid of losing him to a more educated, polished woman in Jaipur. Through her Joshi introduces a new perspective, that of the people who live in the Himalayan foothills. Their life is nomadic with sheep being the main source of income. Now, due to the scarcity of gold mines in India amidst the high consumer demand, smuggling along the northern border has become a lucrative, albeit dangerous, new way to make money. Nimmi is drawn in through her family.
In Jaipur Malik goes to work with one of Lakshmi’s old friends. Manu is in charge of all of the palace’s buildings and the current maharani, Latika, has commissioned an American style theater. This project brings together a number of key characters from The Henna Artist. On opening night, part of the theater’s balcony collapses and blame falls on Manu. Having worked in the accounting department Malik senses something is amiss, but he doesn’t have the connections to pursue his theory. He turns to Lakshmi to come help prevent the downfall of her friends and the unraveling of the secrets they’ve worked so hard to protect.
Joshi is a wonderful storyteller and the storylines in The Secret Keeper are the main focus of the novel, as opposed to The Henna Artist which felt better balanced between plot and character. What hasn’t changed is how carefully Joshi lines her stories with the fabric of reality. The Gold Control Act was real, a misguided attempt to slow Indian reliance on imported gold. It backfired, leading to a massive increase in smuggling. The politics of complicated family and dynastic relationships also come into play with Lakshmi’s interactions in the palace.
This all merges into a colorful tapestry, neatly tying off many of the loose ends in the lives of Lakshmi and Malik. The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is immersive historical fiction of the kind that’s easy to read and allows full escape without any baggage. I can’t help but wonder if there’s another novel to come…
“There’s more power in keeping a secret than in betraying it.”
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*I received a free copy of this book from MIRA Books in exchange for an honest review.*