“The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant is a very interesting novel which tries to see the Biblical stories of Jacob and his sons from the point of view of the ‘forgotten’ daughter Dinah and, to an extent, present the lives of her mothers and other women in her life.
This is not the traditional Bible, it has to be said. Here, ‘El’ is not all-powerful but just one of many gods and no different to them all. Joseph, when he finally really makes it on the stage, is a weak and pathetic character and very probably a charlatan. The Bible is not the inerrant Word of God as Evangelicals would have you believe but the very flawed, rather errant word of men who will present history as best reflects their goals and biases.
Diamant presents us then with a very different world. Not just different from the traditional Biblical stance but also one which is wholly absorbed in the world of women – in that most secret of places: The Red Tent. Dinah, as the only daughter, gets to remain in the tent with the womenfolk long after she should have left (before she starts her own period and becomes ‘a woman’) and so hears all the stories which allow her to put together a woman’s history of how Jacob came to win his wives and build his small empire.
It’s a novel with so much potential and, to an extent, succeeds in its aims. The women are realistic, the authenticity of the period drips with believability and Diamant imagines an alternative story which makes a lot of sense of some of the minor details to the tale which the Bible seems to gloss over.
But it is also a flawed novel. Although it gets a little better towards the end, the portrayal of men is wooden and two-dimensional. We learn nothing of interest of Jacob despite so much preoccupation with him to begin with. In answering questions we might have of the traditional story Diamant simply creates more. For instance, Joseph’s ‘trick’ on his brothers when they come begging to him makes little sense the way Diamant presents this fickle and feeble man. He had the power to make life much worse for them and he clearly wishes to, yet he doesn’t. Why?
Perhaps the worst aspect however, is how Daimant tries to present Dinah as a kind and loving woman whose touch and skill as a midwife makes her well loved. But I see a moderately cruel and selfish woman who may not be truly vindictive but certainly displays none of the inner peace the author tries to portray her as finding. She is a wronged woman, of that there is no doubt, but it seems as though she vents her anger at those responsible and then wanders off almost dumbly never managing to overcome bitterness and desire for vengeance yet never finding that true peace either.
I’m aware, in writing this, that much of my discontent may be because I am a man reading a novel by a woman about women, and for this aspect I am glad of the novel for it makes me question my own stance, my own biases and preconceptions. If a novel cannot grip you with characterisation it should at least, in my opinion, give you cause for thought. ‘The Red Tent’ certainly did this as I read it and has left a mark on me as a result. For that I’m grateful.
But ultimately I did not connect with Dinah or her fellow actors on the stage. If the Bible stereotypes women and gives them bit parts (and I would question if it does) then this novel does the same to men but fails to give the deep insight into women that it promised. It’s still an interesting read, still reads well and still is worthwhile the few hours needed to take it all in. But does it satisfy? No, alas not.