Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

genre: historical fiction
rating: 3.5/5

The Red Tent tells a fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of the Leah who is the sister of Rachel and the husband of Jacob from the Old Testament. Because it is based on the Biblical story, many of the characters and major events are familiar to those of us familiar with the Bible; what makes this story different is that it is told from Dinah's perspective, drawing readers into what the female half of the world may have been doing during Biblical times.

Dinah is a daughter between two worlds - the world of the Red Tent, where goddesses are worshiped and where the lives of women revolve around the cycles of the moon and the harvest. In this sanctuary, the female form and purpose is a sacred thing. Contrast this to the world outside the Red Tent, where women are bought and sold, beaten and worked into old age. As she grows and becomes aware of the nuances of family relationships, she begins to see divisions and unrest among her mothers, father and brothers. When tragedy forces Dinah to make a horrendous choice, her life and that of her family's will never be the same.

I liked it, as much this time as the first time I read it, years ago. I thought about it when I had to put it down and I wanted to know the end of Dinah's tale. I enjoy reading about familiar characters from fresh points of view and I think Diamant created a very realistic rendition of Canaanite society and of the world of Jacob, his wives and family. I loved that so much of the book had to do with birthing and midwifery and relationships between women and between mothers and children. Dinah's relationships were intricate and her friendships were a pleasure to read about.

I was sometimes frustrated that so many of her characters seemed hopelessly flawed, almost unrealistically so and the graphic nature of some scenes detracted from the story, for me. It's certainly an earthy story, set in a time when the old gods and goddesses are being replaced by the one God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, creating an interesting juxtaposition between "new" ways and the "old" ways. As much as the "earthy-ness" bothered me, I can't deny that Diamant has a way with words. One of my favorite paragraphs, written about the birth of a child:
There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name that moment. Like every mother since the first mother, I was overcome and bereft, exalted and ravaged.
I recommend this with caution. There is much honeymooning and lovemaking and we don't have to imagine much. That being said, there much to appreciate in this story about the power and resilience of the female spirit.

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