Monday, July 25, 2011

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Biblical stories have been read and reworked for so many generations, and yet there’s always a new spin or interpretation to be had. However, a fresh perspective is not necessarily a substantial one. With The Red Tent, author Anita Diamant attempts to put a feminist spin on Biblical characters, with results that are poetic yet insipid.

The Red Tent is a retelling of the Biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah and sister of Joseph. It chronicles her story from the courtship and marriage of her parents and the births of her several brothers to her own marriage to the prince of Shechem. Other characters include Jacob’s other wives, Leah’s sister Rachel and the handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah. The book’s title refers to the tent to which the women of Jacob’s tribe must take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, and also where they gather for socialization and form a sense of community among women from other tribes.

Though it’s an intriguing premise that starts off promising, The Red Tent is less like a novel and more like a journal written by Dinah, in which she merely outlines events and doesn’t bother to do much else. There is very little dialogue, little to no character development and not much insight into this fascinating ancient culture. As a reader, I don’t want to be simply told that Leah is the most capable of Jacob’s wives, and that Bilhah is the quiet, contemplative one; I prefer character to be revealed through actions and dialogue. As a writer, I have always been told to “show, don’t tell,” and I become exasperated with the constant telling and little to no showing.

Adherents of the Bible would probably look unfavorably upon Diamant’s spin on the story. In the Bible, Dinah is abducted and raped by the prince of Shechem and later rescued by her brothers; whereas in The Red Tent, she loves the man and willingly becomes his bride. Had Diamant’s intention been to effectively portray the ancient Biblical culture, this would be a glaring error, as bridal kidnapping was a common practice, and it would have been likely for a prince to stake a claim to his bride through force. But instead of accurately depicting the plight of women in such an era, Diamant chose to romanticize Dinah’s plight, thereby downplaying the feminist element she was going for.

Though poetically written by a skilled wordsmith, The Red Tent is ultimately vapid and unsatisfying and lacks direction. It turns up short in the feminist department due to the author’s unwillingness to go deeper and grittier, and a potentially insightful look at a woman’s life in ancient times turns up short. I say skip this one if you’re looking for the full package of entertainment, religious content and educational value.

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