Sunday, 9 December 2012
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Red Tent is one of those books I've had sitting of my shelf for years; I kept meaning to read it but never got around to it. I went into it with high hopes as I love historical fiction set in ancient times, especially when the challenges the reader by adopting a female narrator. And on the whole, I was pleased with The Red Tent. It was engagingly written and hard to put down. The female characters were well imagined and distinct from each other. There's a powerful sense of emotion throughout the story; I especially felt for Rachel as she was unable to carry a child to term but had to watch her sisters repeatedly become pregnant and give birth. It's a book that I'm still thinking about days after finishing it, which is always a good sign.
But unfortunately I didn't adore The Red Tent in the way I was hoping to, perhaps my expectations were too high. The biggest problem I had with it was the earth-mother tone and all the worship of periods and fertility. This is perhaps my own personal bias here, but I find it corny to read about women celebrating their periods as linking them to the earth and motherhood as the pinnacle of what it means to be a woman. Before you remind me, I know this is set in Biblical times and motherhood was what it meant to be a woman then, but I still felt as though Diamant was over the top with the female rituals and menstruation worship. It was though Diamant was also trying to make a point to women today (to celebrate our periods?), that she was claiming that the woman in The Red Tent had the right idea (look at all the sisterhood) and to be honest, it made me a bit uncomfortable. I think there is much more to being a woman than this and I didn't like Diamant's agenda. I'm not an earth-mother kind of girl.
However, I did enjoy the sections on midwifery and birth. I'm not a mother myself but I still found it fascinating to read about the different techniques women of those times would have used to get a woman through birth. I think we in the West sometimes forget how inherently dangerous giving birth to a child is as death is always lurking for the women in the story.
Although the female characters were well developed, I found the male characters a little one-dimensional. There is a deliberate distance adopted (men are not allowed in the red tent), but still they seemed either good (Shechem) or evil (Laban) with nothing in between. I didn't believe that any of the relationships between Jacob and his wives were emotionally fulfilling for the women in them. Strict Christians may also object to the liberty Diamant takes with some Biblical events, although this wasn't an issue for me.
When I finished this book, I was intending to give it a low rating but it is a book that has stuck in my mind and the more I look back on it, the more I appreciate the story and female characters. It's just a shame it didn't live up to my expectations.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1997
My Edition: Pan Macmillan, 2001
Score: 3.5 out of 5
1. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman - another retelling of an event in Jewish history, the mass suicide in Masada in 70AD. This is how I feel retellings from female points of view should be done.
2. The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn - The story of Purim from the point of view of Esther.
3. Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner - A little bit further on in history, but still worth reading. An Orthodox Jew, Esther, strains against the boundaries of her religion during Ottoman times.