sometimes witty book reviews
Anita Diamant has successfully written the believable biography of Dinah. Never heard of her? She’s is the daughter of Joseph and the only female offspring of his four wives. A biblical character, her name is mentioned once and her story is represented in the holy text as justification for a small genocide. The Red Tent tells the story from the female perspective.
Diamant has obviously thoroughly researched her ancient Middle Eastern history and knows her old testament back to front. The Red Tent itself is named after an ancient and forgotten part of women’s history. The red tent was a desert peoples’ tradition in which menstruating woman sheltered, literally in a tent made of red cloth, with her sisters, fellow wives and servant women for the duration of their mutual bleeding. Dinah grows up as the only recording device for her four mothers’ histories, told to her in the womb-like glow of the menstruation tent. Over the course of the novel, the loss of women’s history is keenly felt.
Initially I was put off by the constant referral to child-birth (though this may be a side affect of growing up within a midwifery savvy family). It soon dawned on me though that the ability to give birth defined a woman’s life for millennia (yes, I felt like a fool for only just feeling the gravity of this reality). Why was I annoyed? Because I had inadvertently applied 21st century sterile-body mentality to a human function which in a way was the very essence of womanhood until very, very recently. I was rejecting my female ancestors’ past for things they couldn’t control. I was scared of ‘regressing’ to childbirth. But Dinah owns it.
Once past this barrier, The Red Tent blossoms into a moving and poignant tale of and for women. History from a truly female perspective. There is, however, rarely a substantial passage that passes the Bechdel test. When it does the subject matter is usually weaving or cooking. To enjoy this tale one has to take off the 21st century feminist hat for a moment – but keep it handy should you need to make a mad dash away from this novel. Which is unlikely, because I didn’t put it down once. Really.