I am a big fan of Huffpost Books listings/recommendations, therefore it was only natural that when they twitted about 10 Absolutely Incredible Historical Women, I would sit up and scan through it, for the next set of my must reads. While the list documented some traditional heroines like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison, there were also some interesting choices like Orlando by Virginia Woolf (I mean Orlando becomes a boy half way through the novel!!!). However the one book that for sure got my attention was “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant and its protagonist Dinah. I mean the book was historical fiction, set in ancient Cannon (Remember my Masters was in Middle Eastern Studies) and it’s narrated by a Jacob’s daughter – Dinnah. Huffpost Books when synopsizing the book stated “To call it provocative and rebellious is an understatement; it pushes against patriarchy and suggests an ancient and empowering role for women and women’s sexuality.” I had to get the book!
The book as I previously mentioned is a first person narration by Dinnah, daughter of Jacob, great-granddaughter to Abraham, of the first covenant with God fame. The book begins with the story of Dinnah’s mother and aunts, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Biliah and their marriage to Jacob. It follows the well documented story of Jacob who worked for 14 years as a slave for Laban so that he could marry Leah and Rachel and the birth of Jacob’s sons and his only daughter – Dinnah. Dinnah describes her childhood as the only girl and her early initiation into the Red Tent where the women spent their 3 days during their menstrual cycle and her closeness with Joseph, Rachel’s son. The narration follows Jacob’s decision to leave Laban’s patriarchy and to make peace with his brother Esau before finally settling on the outskirts of Shechem. In Shechem, Dinnah who had begun assisting her aunt Rachel is summoned to the palace to help in the birth of the new baby by the King’s most recent concubine. In a departure from the Bible which spoke about “defiling” of Dinnah, Dinna talks of her falling in love with the Prince of Shechem and consenting to spend the night with him and agreeing to becoming his bride. This action leads to tumultuous results, including the murder of her husband and all the men of Shechem by Simon and Levi, her brothers, her escape into Egypt and the birth of her son, of finally finding peace and settling down with Bian the carpenter and travelling back to see a dying Jacob, under the protection of Joseph, who is now the Vizier of Egypt, after being sold to slavery by his brothers.
Now for the review – The book begins very well – Dinnah speaks of how a daughter must always talk about the mother to better explain her own history. She also mentions about her fleeting refernce in Bible- her being “defiled” and the vengeance wrecked by her brothers and how that is not the complete or the true story. It grips you right at the start and forces a reader to read on. But I think that is where the promise of the book ends. While the descriptions of the ancient land are both accurate and well researched, I have to yet find the reason for naming it the “The Red Tent” – the book proposes liberation of women during their menstrual cycle which intrinsically is supposed to mark independence and rebellion for women from patriarchy; but I did not think that the author really emphasized on this spiritual aspect as much as the physical details, which we all could have been well spared off! Nor is the passing of the red tent and its ritual which metaphorically and may in actuality mark the end of liberty that women in pre-modern world enjoyed clearly delineated or expressed. The author talks of Jacob’s growing dislike of the red tent as well how the daughters in law of Leah and Rachel refused to follow the rituals of the red tent, but that is in passing; the reader is left to make or not make his or her own inferences. I felt that the significance of the red tent and the fact that it stood for rebellion and independence from a male dominated society was lost, especially by the end of the book, when we went to Egypt and saw the reconciliation between Dinnah and Joseph etc. Not that the entire book is bad – the characters of Leah, Rachel, Zilaph and Biliah are really well-rounded and their kindness, jealousy and humanity, all of which comes through very well in the narration, making them real and extremely likable. I did not understand Rebecca’s arrogance – I am not a Biblical scholar but I never thought of Rebecca as arrogant. Jacob’s character again I felt was weak, but that’s something I felt even when reading the Bible. My main disappointment was again with Dinnah’s character – she seems to be constantly dependent on others for her fate – the only empowering action was to marry the Prince of Shechem. While I know that historically in patriarchies, women fundamentally had little if any choices, but this is a work of fiction and all the while Dinnah whose voice the novel purports to give stands quietly either because she is scared or in awe or is too enraged. She does not speak!!! She simply narrates and that to my mind is not a sign of empowerment!
Read it as you may feel differently. Again the book had several promises, but they simply did not get fulfilled!