Book Review: The Red Tent

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For a moment I weighed the idea of keeping my secret and remaining a girl, but the thought passed quickly. I could only be what I was. And I was a woman.

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve been neglecting my once-beloved Kindle in the past few posts. Lately I’ve started taking a new route home from work, which leads me past the local branch of the public library. I’ve taken to stopping by the library more often, which leads me to pick up books that I wouldn’t necessarily have sought out to download on my Kindle. I’ve missed the organic feeling of simply spotting a book and picking it up out of curiosity.

But with The Red Tent, the story is slightly different. I found it on a bookshelf at home, which is odd. My parents are avid readers, but mostly read in Korean. It turned out that my mom purchased this book for an ESL class long ago, but had never ended up reading it. So more than ten years later, I gave this book its long overdue first read.

The Red Tent is the story of Dinah, the sole daughter of Jacob and Leah, his first wife, whose story is briefly touched upon in the Hebrew Bible. Diamant expands on her story, breathing life into Dinah and other Biblical figures. I’m not too familiar with the Bible and can’t comment on to what extent Diamant changed the characters from their original depictions. I’m fond of modern imaginings of age-old stories, though, and I enjoyed the focus given to women in this retelling.

The female characters dominate this novel. The title refers to the red tent where women gathered to commiserate with each other during life, death, childbirth, and menstruation. The narrative begins long before Dinah’s birth, focusing on Jacob’s four wives, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, who are characterized distinctly. In addition to the women of Jacob’s clan, there are countless midwives, priestesses, and bondswomen, who despite differences of personality and culture find community in their womanhood. The novel contains a huge cast of characters, especially due to the migratory nature of Dinah’s life, but each character is given a distinct personality that makes them easy to distinguish, despite the foreign names.

I enjoyed The Red Tent immensely for introducing me to an unfamiliar world in an accessible way. The only fault I think I can find with the novel is that its narration can sometimes be slow. Also, it was difficult to discern a personality in Dinah herself. Leah is practical, Rachel is beautiful and conniving, but Dinah appears to be more of a vessel for other characters’ personalities than possessing one of her own. I didn’t find this too much of a problem, since there are so many interesting characters in the novel, but it did become irritating at times, especially towards the end of the novel when the plot becomes slower.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Red Tent is a beautifully told story that focuses on women and their role in a society that while different from ours is not actually too different. I loved that the story focused on women who were dedicated to maintaining their own community, despite cultural and personal differences like being wives of the same man.

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