Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Reviewed by Liza Perrat

5 stars

In the Old Testament, Dinah’s life is only hinted at in a brief detour within the familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis which deals with her father, Jacob, son of Issac, grandson of Abraham and brother of Esau. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has taken these scant details of Dinah’s life and imagined them into an amazing narrative of what might have happened.

The author never suggests this is the "true" story. It is a novel, even though it may be based in fact. However, the story seems to be thoroughly researched, and I was as fascinated by her descriptions of life in Biblical times as by the lives of the characters.

The Red Tent explores the lives of the wives and daughter of Jacob, affording us a glimpse into the world of women at that time. Told through the eyes of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter to survive into adulthood, the author has created a wonderful tale of an otherwise minor character.

From the start, we are immediately drawn into the intimate details of the lives of Dinah and her four “mothers”, as Jacob marries Dinah’s mother, Leah, then her sister, Rachel, then takes as concubines the other two sisters: Zilpah, and Bilhah. As the only daughter, Dinah’s “mothers” all love and spoil her, bestowing on Dinah gifts that sustain her through childhood, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. In their relationship with Jacob, and with each other, these women struggle through a range of emotions: jealously, love, pride and loyalty.

We hear about the births of the children resulting from these relationships, as well as Dinah’s childhood of learning from her “mothers” in the red tent, where the women were isolated during their cycles. Within the confines of the red tent, the women bonded in such a way as to give them a subtle power over men, who were fearful of their rituals and knowledge of childbearing. It gave them a certain amount of leverage in a very much male-dominated society.

Later in the story, Dinah’s father, Jacob, leaves his father-in-law’s lands, along with his extensive family and flock of sheep and, eventually, certain events tear these women’s lives apart, as Dinah falls in love and ends up in Egypt.

You do not have to be familiar with the Bible to enjoy this novel as The Red Tent is not, in essence, a religious book, but it does discuss the God of Jacob's father, as well as exploring the many gods worshipped by other cultures of the time. 

This story, about the strength of women, was one of the best I have read in a long time: powerful, beautifully written and imaginatively conceived. I was sorry to reach the last page. Dinah's tale reaches out from a remarkable period in early history, creating for us an intimate connection with our past, and I cannot recommend this book more highly.

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