Anita Diamant has done every single thing right with this novel. It is one of the most stunning pieces of literature I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. In a primarily patriarchal culture, the red tent is a women’s haven where men are not permitted, and the culture within is absolutely beautiful. The narrator, Dinah, is the only daughter of Jacob (of biblical fame), borne to him by his wife Leah. She is looking back at her life, from her very first memories to the nightfall of her existence, and it is a life full of both joy and sorrow.
Jacob has four wives, and Dinah regards them all as mothers. She is raised in a gaggle of children, always surrounded by playmates and confidantes. Her best friend and closest sibling is Joseph, though they at some point become sadly estranged. As she and her brothers grow, they all drift slightly apart and fissures appear within the family group. Dinah is also the character in the Bible who is “raped” by the prince of a city, for whom her brothers later take revenge by killing every male resident of the city. In the novel, however, Diamant portrays this as a love story, with Dinah visiting the city with her mother as an apprentice midwife, meeting the prince, and falling deeply in love with him. They have a whirlwind romance and a clandestine wedding without her parents permission, and they pay a heavy price for it. Despite the profoundly heartbreaking tragedy of her short marriage, Dinah manages to move on and live a life of productivity, joy, and even enlightenment to a certain degree.
One interesting thing about the novel is that one would expect it to be steeped in Jewish culture and faith, but that is not the case. Jacob and his sons after him do worship the god of his fathers. The women, however, around whom the novel circles, are of a strange pagan faith–a cult that worships the power of women and of the earth and the moon. There is very little interference from the men on this topic. I suppose women were not considered important enough at this time to be converted. This faith is what unites the women, who must come together in the red tent for a week out of every month, conducting rituals and celebrations, performing births together, singing songs and feasting. Each woman is regarded as a goddess in her own right, and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a distance and cold deity. Truly, these women exist in a world apart.
The plot is excellent. Even in moderately uneventful parts Diamant manages to create enough “action” to keep the reader interested. The novel, as I said, is stunning. It is a beautiful piece commemorating the special culture that exists among women. In a time when women were thought to have very little power, the bond between these women and the knowledge they possess in secret is inspiring. The men in the story are portrayed as dupes, albeit powerful ones. Dinah herself is a character worthy of awe. Even in her youth she is very wise, and though she is a bit impetuous and emotional, she is for the most part gentle in spirit, in word, and in deed. She is a lovely narrator, never losing the readers interest for a moment. Her inner thoughts are profound and intriguing, and her words and actions are at times quite amusing. Diamant’s construction of the entire novel is masterful, her grasp of the English language is that of a fine artist. If there is anything wrong with this book, I missed it. I definitely recommend it to female readers, for its beauty and its uniqueness of subject.