Friday, May 1, 2015

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Reviewed by Ambrea

In the Book of Genesis, Dinah is mentioned only once.  Except for a brief and bloody interlude, in which she is mentioned only in passing, she never acts or speaks of her own accord.  She has no story to tell, no history to relate, no memories to share:  she is merely a tool used by her brothers to accomplish their own ends.  Anita Diamant, however, manages to give Dinah a voice.  Dinah—daughter of Jacob and Leah, sister of Joseph, wife of Shalem—has a story that is singularly, uniquely her own.

I originally heard about The Red Tent through a commercial advertising a serialized event on Lifetime, a short series under the same name.  Needless to say, I was intrigued and decided I would take the opportunity to read Diamant’s novel.  Turns out, I found an unexpected gem.

Rich in storytelling and tradition, The Red Tent weaves a complicated tale that is both provoking and intimate—and, if I may say so, utterly captivating.  I love the depth and detail that Diamant provides, the way she reaches into the past to bring forth a story of the Bible that, I admit, I hadn’t realized existed.

As a narrator, Dinah has a distinctive voice.  She is a daughter, a mother, a midwife, a caretaker, and a storyteller, and I found that her roles as a woman—her roles as a human being—shine through her story and provide some link to a history that is sometimes overlooked and, more often, forgotten.  Dinah brings back memories from the brink, gives them life and purpose:  “It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing.”

And I love the story which Dinah tells.  More accurately, I love the way in which she tells it.  Dinah has such a unique perspective, an almost poetic way of recounting her story that’s absolutely enchanting.  For instance, I love her description of Leah, her mother:  “Leah’s scent was no mystery.  She smelled of the yeast she handled daily, brewing and baking.  She reeked of bread and comfort.”  Her words are visceral, recognizable, connecting on an emotional level that grabbed my attention and gripped my heart.

And, listening to Dinah, I learned to enjoy the traditions of the women in her family.  Dinah upholds an unbroken line of mothers and children.  She forges a link from mother to daughter and so on and so forth, linking past and present and future.

While I cannot say I fully understood the traditions of the red tent, the religious beliefs of her mother and her mother’s mother, I found her connection to her past and her family a reassuring thought.  Her traditions give her depth.  Her traditions give her purpose and wisdom—and, more importantly hope.

However, Dinah’s story is often one of tragedy.  From the first page, she alludes to her future and to the tragedies she will face, but when it comes to pass, it’s like a thunderbolt:  fast, sudden and agonizing.  Dinah faces loss like she’s never known, and it’s a heart-wrenching thing to witness.

I should also point out that The Red Tent is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a story about memory and tradition and, yes, hope, but it’s also a story about mankind’s various faults, child-birth, death and loss.  Dinah never conceals the truth.  She reveals everything, including the rituals and rites of womanhood and the trials of childbirth.  Some of it is shocking and some of it is stomach-turning, but it’s all part of her life, which she isn’t afraid to lay bare.

Despite these potential detractors, I still consider The Red Tent to be one of the most exceptional novels I’ve read.  So much of this book appealed to me—Dinah’s voice, her history, her life—and spoke to my reader’s heart.  This novel is a perfect combination of storytelling and history and, more importantly, memory.

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