The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This was a book that I acquired in a book swap on the first literary holiday that I organised in Hampshire. The person who donated it recommended it but since then another friend has spoken about it often enough to bump it to the top of my TBR pile.
It fleshes out the story of Dinah, mentioned almost as a plot driver in the Old Testament, as the daughter of Jacob and Leah, who was raped, an event that triggered revenge and slaughter from her family. Taking this as a base to work with Diamant allows Dinah a voice in this first person narrative, to tell not just her own story, but those of her mothers, because Dinah had four.
We are taken into the ancient world of nomadic farmers in the Middle East, but unusually we focus on the life that revolves around the Red Tent, where the women live, cook, sing, menstruate and give birth. This tent is off limits to their male counterparts, who never enter, and the women are allowed to be themselves, talk, laugh, sometimes compete, but always to support each other and offer experience and wisdom.
Dinah's mother is Leah, Jacob's first wife, but she absorbs the stories and experience of all four of his wives, and celebrates each of them with affection. This forms the first half of the novel, the rhythms of existence as Dinah grows from a girl into a young woman in the family camp, eventually assisting Rachel, Jacob's second wife, as midwife to the women in the area. It is when Rachel and Dinah are summoned to the palace in Shechem to help with a birth that the story changes pace and Dinah's life course changes forever. The last part of this story takes place in Egypt and a is a wholly different chapter of her life as she matures and reaches the later stages of life, but with no less emphasis on her experience as a woman so long ago.
This book felt epic, not only because it covers Dina's life so completely, with all of its episodes from Israel to Egypt and back again, but atmospherically it plays out like a Charlton Heston movie. Whenever I pictured the book in my mind it came with all of the colours of that part of the world, reds, golds and desert colours, so that I could feel the sun on my skin, the dust on my feet. I loved being admitted to the Red Tent, hearing their stories. Dinah's affection for her mothers transferred easily to me. When the novel took a right angle turn half way through I mourned the loss of that nomadic world, even though the plot still carried me away in a different direction with little time to look back. When we finally arrived in Egypt, with so many tragedies behind us already, I was so completely attached to Dinah and the people around her that tears were inevitable, and I cried buckets.
I found this to be a beautiful and involving novel, sufficiently re-creating a mythological world from a distant past to a tangible one of my imagination that was difficult to leave behind at the end. The shift of dynamic in the middle is a little sudden and requires a resetting of interest in the reader, but Diamant is following the transcript laid down in the original texts. The story does collect itself again still linking back to the first part while following another path entirely.
While being vaguely familiar with the original story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah from Sunday Schools past, I was curious to see how much of it was in the Bible and re-read the passages in Genesis. I was very surprised how closely they ran parallel to each other, and how frank the ancient text is about women, and their monthly cycles. The story about the stolen idols and Rebecca's reason for keeping them I believed to be an embellishment, surely that is not in the Holy Book, but it is all there.
My friend who had read it spoke with a little envy about the feeling of kinship between the women, especially during menstruation or giving birth, and the enveloping protection of the Red Tent itself. The feminine intimacy of these scenes may put some people off, especially men, while others who prefer a fast paced, plot-driven story may find the earlier parts of the book too slow. However if you like observational story telling based around intricate relationships, heavily weighted towards the feminist aspects of ancient history, this lovely, warm and involving book is for you. I would also highly recommend it for your book group, with lots to talk about, especially if you can get your male members to read it.
A Reading Group Guide for The Red Tent can be found by using the link.
An interesting article about The Red Tent and its success in MS Magazine, including an interview with the author also makes a useful read.


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Jeane said...

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