Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent poses a rare difficulty for me because there is so little about it I didn’t like that it makes reviewing it hard. After all, you can only gush so much. What you can do much longer is sit up into the night to finish the novel, even if you read partly through tears. Yes, mushy old me even teared up towards the end though, make no mistake, I’m pretty much a robot, you can ask anyone (or at least that one guy).
This is a story of a minor biblical character Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. If you didn’t know she was Jacob’s daughter, welcome to the club of Bible non-scholars. If you don’t know who Jacob is, that’s a little more shameful but easy to rectify: he’s the one following Isaac, with a plethora of sons who include Joseph, the guy with the Technicolor coat. Dinah was his only daughter whose role in the original story is secondary but does lead to treacherous slaughter: another thing I didn’t quite remember from that story because they kind of gloss over most bloody parts during Sunday mass.
Diamant takes up the bits of what we know about Dinah and weaves them into a powerful story of femininity and relationships. She invents not only the missing elements from Dinah’s biography before and after the slaughter but also a whole female-centered mythology. What I found most impressive is how the characters but also the reality of living in a nomadic shepherd tribe in the desert come to life in the novel. It might be inaccurate (don’t know, don’t care) but becomes completely believable.
Unlike 97,4% of the Bible, this version is the story of women. Men remain marginal characters who are at best weak, at worst bestial (with a few not-that-developed exceptions). It’s women who pass on traditions and oral history (herstory, I suppose but it just sounds bad) and give each other support, particularly in childbirth. Womanhood is embodied most fully in four wives of Jacob: the well-known ones, Leah and Rachel, and the often forgotten Zilpah and Bilhah. Each represents some qualities associated with femininity: strength and beauty, spirituality and compassion. But each also represents one phase of the moon, together standing for the wholeness of woman spirit that Dinah will struggle to achieve once they’re gone.
However, this is also the story of change. The world of women, with their worship of fertility goddess derived from ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cultures is more and more threatened and subjugated by the world of men. Jacob’s God demands that all other gods be forgotten. Worse still, younger generations of women don’t want to perpetuate old traditions or celebrate the wonder of femininity, becoming accomplices to the loss of power and balance between the two sexes. (And, as I suppose the theory goes, leading to the world in which women became little more than cattle, sometimes a little less.) Now, as I said there’s very little I could criticize about this book but if I insisted, I found the goddess worship a teensy bit force-fed sometimes. But that might be because I’m allergic to newageism, particularly in literature, having read a few terrible things of this inclination. Except for that, I loved the novel, both its emotional and (fake?)historical aspect and recommend it without reservations.