Review: The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

As a child attending church with my grandmother, I tended to avoid the Sunday School and sat on through the main address instead.  Given that it often went above my head, my mind rarely stayed on the minister’s voice.  Instead, as a committed book-fiend, I looked for something to read.  Forbidden from bringing to church whichever book I happened to have on the go at the time, I reached for the Bible.  Always, I turned to Genesis and the strange tale of Jacob and his wives.  Even now, I could probably recite the chapters featuring that strangest of families with greater accuracy than I could any other section of the Bible.  Naturally, I was always going to be intrigued by The Red Tent, which sets out to grant a voice to the long-silenced women of the clan.

It is easy to see why Diamant was drawn to retelling this story.  While they have only walk-on parts in the story of Jacob, these characters are among the most iconic in scripture.  Rachel and Leah are sisters who share a husband.  Diamant suggests fairly credibly that handmaids Zilpah and Bilhah, later Jacob’s concubines, were illegitimate daughters of Laban, father to Rachel and Leah.  It is Rachel’s stirring words to Jacob, demanding that he sleep with her handmaid so that she might have children, which inspired Margaret Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale.  The ‘Red Centre’ where the handmaids receive their training is officially known as ‘The Rachel and Leah Centre’.  The idea of women being without agency, even over their own bodies, really does go all the way back to Genesis.

Despite all this, the story is not told by any of Jacob’s wives or concubines.  Instead, our narrator is Dinah, lone daughter of Jacob and child of four mothers.  Featuring in a scarce few lines of Biblical text, Dinah is remembered as a victim.  During a visit to the Hivites, she was ‘taken’ and raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite’s ruler.  Shechem desired to marry Dinah but Jacob said he would only give his consent if all of the Hivite men consented to be circumcised.  So great was Shechem’s desire for Dinah that Hamor agreed.  While the men were recovering from the procedure, Dinah’s brothers moved in and slaughtered all of them.  The first time I ever saw the word ‘rape’, it was while reading Dinah’s story.  In The Red Tent however, Diamant suggests that something quite different might have happened, subtitling her book ‘the greatest love story never told’.

Diamant is unabashed at taking a creative approach in her reinterpretation of the story.  The title refers to the tent where the women of Jacob’s tribe go when menstruating or giving birth, being a female-only space where they can share stories and wisdom away from a world where they are generally required to be subservient.  Of course, Diamant herself admits that there is no evidence that such a ritual was in use by this tribe.  As with much of The Red Tent, it is all conjecture.

Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah

It seems that those who love The Red Tent and those who loathe it tend to do so for the same reason.  It is seen as a feminist and progressive retelling of one of the most well-known episodes in Genesis.  Differing sides of the spectrum – particularly within the Christian community – are obviously going to have different responses to this.  For myself, my feelings were more conflicted.  It was intriguing to hear the long-ignored voices of Jacob’s women, but from very early in the story, Diamant’s creative choices seemed peculiar to downright bizarre.

The strangest of these arises from her rearranging of the dynamic between Jacob and his two principal wives, Leah and Rachel.  Genesis depicts this as a long-standing rivalry, with Jacob falling in love with Rachel but tricked into marrying her elder sister first. Leah is unloved by her husband but is rewarded by God with abundant fertility while adored wife Rachel remains barren. It is this longing for children that leads her to send her handmaid to her husband in her place. Give me children or else I die.

By contrast, The Red Tent removes the female antagonism. Diamant portrays Rachel as afraid of physical sex, sending her sister to the marriage-bed with Jacob out of fear.  Jacob does indeed love Rachel but he also desires her sister so is not fooled by Leah’s disguise.  The women chat casually about the ecstasies of sex with him and the story loses the symmetry of the fecund ignored wife set against the childless but cherished one.  This in turn destroys the tension upon which the narrative relies.  Leah no longer prays for sons as a means of gaining her husband’s affection and Rachel does not barter nights with Jacob in return for mandrakes in the hopes of finally conceiving.  Leah uses natural contraceptives to get a break from pregnancy and mandrakes are gifted to Rachel out of sympathy.  Most significantly, the handmaids are not ordered into Jacob’s bed but instead have a far greater degree of autonomy with Zilpah telling Jacob after giving birth that she will never lie with him again.  The women of The Red Tent make their own decisions, pursue their own interests and once a month they gather in the red tent and combine forces.  It is all very different to how they operated as pawns in the struggle between Laban and Jacob in Genesis.

Seduction of Dinah, daughter of Leah

Essentially though, this is all just the backdrop for Dinah’s story so perhaps it makes sense that Diamant has removed the impetus for narrative drive around the supporting characters.  Instead we hear a great deal about the selfish grandmother Rebecca and the intimate details of the rituals involved in the menarche.  It all felt unnecessarily squalid given Diamant’s admission that she was making it up as she went along.  Is it really the most female-positive way of retelling these events?

To make matters worse, there is then the awkward key change as Dinah abandons the women she has grown up with and goes off to the Hivites.  At this point, the novel is revealed as a romance as Dinah falls instantly in love with the handsome Prince Shalem (Shechem in Genesis).  Diamant is transplanting modern sensibilities into a Biblical timeframe and setting and this does rather stretch the reader’s credulity.  Her romantic hero Shalem (a word meaning ‘peace’ or ‘safety’, making him a very different character to the Genesis figure Shechem) promises monogamy to Dinah, is secure enough in his masculinity to agree to be circumcised, takes account of her pleasure in sex, etc, etc.  They have the perfect first kiss, the perfect first sex (very soon after their first meeting) and pledge eternal devotion.  And then her family demand that all the Hivite men be circumcised if consent is to be given to the marriage, and then Dinah’s brothers sweep through and massacre everyone while they recover.  Dinah is less than thrilled and curses them all before fleeing, with the strong implication that the family’s subsequent travails are as a result of her words.

There are a number of issues with this as a plot choice.  First of all, I have read elsewhere that based on the timeline, Dinah may have been as young as nine when Shechem took her.  In that case, no matter how tenderly he supposedly looked upon her, one can understand why her brothers wanted to take revenge.  If we assume that she was older, there is still the problematic sequencing of how Shechem has intercourse with Dinah and only afterwards decides that he actually loves her and wants to make her his wife.  It hardly seems like the most appropriate template for a romance.  Even when I was a young child, it always sounded to me that he did something awful to her and only tried to be nice afterward.  I never thought it sounded good.

The problem with the text in Genesis is that it focuses on the event as a mishandled transaction between men – Shechem should have asked permission beforehand etc – rather than giving any insight into Dinah’s feelings.  However, even if we ignore all of that, the scant few days that she spends with Shechem makes it difficult to really believe in this as ‘the greatest love story never told’.  Years later, Dinah tells the son which is born of their brief union that his father was ‘the most courageous man’ she ever knew.  Given how short her acquaintance with Shechem had been, this seemed a little … much.  In fairness though, I had the same issue when I was studying Romeo and Juliet.  Insta-Love is not a trope that I am a fan of.

The subsequent events within The Red Tent felt slow going.  There is another key change as Dinah goes from young and starry-eyed young girl into mature tragic heroine.  She escapes with her mother-in-law to Egypt, gives birth and has to act as her son’s nursemaid after her mother-in-law claims him for her own.  She gets back into midwifery, she encounters her brother Joseph again and they reach some form of reconciliation.  As in Genesis, she attends her father’s deathbed.  She remarries but has no more children.  She and her son never quite come back together.  The novel ceases to have any life on the page and Diamant’s enthusiasm as a story-teller seems to shrivel.  Ultimately, The Red Tent felt a dull read, which I had not expected.  I could not engage with it as a feminist retelling of Genesis because it seemed that Diamant had tried to make her version of the story pro-women by simply making all of the men into villains (or rather all of the Hebrew men, but that’s a whole separate can of worms).  Laban is a barbarian rather than a wealthy land-owner, Isaac is senile, Jacob is weak and almost all of Dinah’s brothers are savages.  Even Joseph is fairly unpleasant.  They are violent and wrathful, they bring death and destruction.  By contrast, Dinah and her mothers bring new life into the world, they are connected to the earth, they are in tune with the rhythms of their bodies.  I remember when I was studying The Color Purple, we read a criticism of it which complained that the book’s central message was ‘sisterhoods are beautiful and men stink’.  I think that goes double for The Red Tent.

It is rare for me to start a book with such positive preconceptions, so finishing it with such negative feelings was particularly disappointing.  Having always found Jacob’s wives intriguing, I expected far more from The Red Tent than it delivered.  Diamant’s unwillingness or perhaps inability to connect with the social mores of the Biblical era means that her lead characters seem horribly out of place in their little bubble of modern values and behaviours, which in turn means that one finishes the novel aware that these women’s voices remain unheard.    Nowhere here does one feel that we are gaining any kind of insight into the lives of Dinah and her mothers of even the women like them.  There was a story here worth telling, but not like this.

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The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Published by Pan Macmillan on September 18th 2009
Genres: Fiction, Christian, Historical, General, Religious
Pages: 404
ISBN: 9780330507073

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