In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant takes a fleeting moment in the Old Testament of the Bible and transforms it into an epic narrative.
Dinah is a biblical character around which a violent set of events occur. If you are religious or at all acquainted with theology, you will know what they are. The Red Tent turns the story on its head by telling the story through the eyes of Dinah herself and turns her from a victim, into a fascinating protagonist.
This is a book to read if you love folklore and storytelling. Dinah’s narrative drew me into the world so that I felt as if I was sitting down next to her, listening.
“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.”
From the very first line I was excited to know more about this woman and I felt it was going to be a story of adventure, love and betrayal.
One of the strongest themes in The Red Tent is women’s relationships. How Motherhood, Sisterhood and female hierachies work in a situation where it is perfectly normal for a man to have multiple wives. I’ve no idea what it was really like of course, but Diamant’s vision of this time in history feels so authentic, it is as if she was there observing as part of the family of Jacob. She imagines the concerns of the women in the group and the dynamic between them created by their contrasting personalities. Leah is arguably the strongest of the women and mother to Dinah, beautiful and tempestuous Rachel, and the ‘lesser wives’ generous and humble Bilhah and spiritual Zilpah. As you would expect in such a situation, feelings of jealousy and spite are present but are also tempered by the bond connecting the women and the common experiences of childbearing and daily rituals. While the narrative never makes a clear moral comment on a man having multiple wives, perhaps it is telling that the real romance in the book is that of Dinah and Shechem who is the prince of Egypt who have an intense and exclusive love.
The real drama in the book comes from the action taken by Simon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers. What makes the story so heartbreaking is that as a reader you have come to know and empathise with these strong female personalities and appreciate the loving bonds between them, yet just a moment of unwanted violent revenge spurred by illogic male pride changes everything.
A word of warning, The Red Tent is a book more sympathetic to female characters than male and the first half of the book is pretty much all about the relationships between the women. For anyone with a very traditional view of the story of Jacob, I can also imagine that it would be challenging as it plays so strongly with the received view of events. That said, male or female please don’t let these things put you off. The Red Tent is a fascinating story – a real yarn – that has the power to transport you to a completely different era.
Thank you to Anirban from the Riverside Readers book group who gave me this a year ago in a ‘Secret Santa’ book swap.
Have you read The Red Tent and if so did you enjoy it?