Title/Author: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Publisher/Year Published: Picador USA, 1997
How I got this book: Borrowed it from a friend
Why I read this book: It sounded interesting, and my friend said it’s great
The Hebrew Bible (the Torah) contains a brief narrative of a horrible incident surrounding Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, father of twelve boys—who later became the twelve tribes of Israel—and husband to four women. Though it is implied in the Torah that Dinah was raped, she never speaks during this narrative, begging the question of what actually happened. In The Red Tent, Diamant allows Dinah to tell her story, beginning with the story of her mothers and continuing through her upbringing, the horrible event, and all the way to the end of her life. While the book is technically split into three parts, as I read it there was a definite shift from the first to the second half. The first half is more like background information, largely cultural, and leading up to the event described in the Bible. What I would call the second half depicts the event, its aftermath, and the rest of Dinah’s life, and reads more like a regular novel. While in most novels this much background information would get tedious, here is does nothing of the sort, and in fact is the reason I loved Diamant’s novel so much.
The front cover of The Red Tent quotes author James Carroll, who said of Diamant's novel that “The oldest story of all could never seem more original, or more true.” While I hate to be the reviewer using someone else’s quotation, those last two words perfectly articulate what I felt as I read this beautifully written story: it seems so true. Having grown up hearing and reading the stories of Judaism’s forefathers and foremothers, Diamant’s novel brought to life all of those stories and commentaries. As I read, I could practically see each event unfolding, and had no trouble believing that it all really did happen. Particularly in the first half of the novel, I had fun trying to figure out which events were ones I had read before but forgotten, or ones from Diamant’s own imagination, which made reading The Red Tent even more enjoyable.
While it is probably useful to have at least some cursory knowledge of the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s family, it is by no means necessary to be completely familiar with them prior to reading The Red Tent; Diamant briefly reviews each significant event, and even someone with no knowledge whatsoever of these Jewish ancestors should still get more than enough out of this piece of historical fiction (or midrash, the term for such commentary on the Torah, which literally translates as “investigation” or “study”). Keeping track of all of the characters might be difficult without prior knowledge of who they are, but this is really no fault of the author—the Torah is insane when it comes to names.
Diamant’s story is unlike any I have read. Through the lips of young, curious, exuberant Dinah, Diamant makes these lifestyles enviable. I never thought I would yearn to live in tents and travel for many days or weeks just to get a short distance away (though only short by today’s standards), singing as I walk along with all of my belongings and family members. Beautifully and elegantly crafted, The Red Tent drew me into a world completely unlike my own, but one whose existence I easily accepted. Whether or not this is what actually happened to Dinah, this midrash is one worth reading.
4.5 stars (because I liked the first half a bit better than the second)