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The Red Tent
This is a Women's Book, in the sense that primacy is given to such "women's topics" as menstruation, childbirth (lots and lots of childbirth) and infertility, and a mother's relationship with her children. Dinah's brothers, her father, her uncle, even the men she loves barely appear as characters due to the separate spheres men and women inhabit in the novel. Then again, the same could be said for most of the women, who are less characters than collections of characteristics (and of children), aloof as distant planets. It is noteworthy to me that that the book only gets interesting when Dinah leaves the red tent of the title behind, when she starts associating with women (and a couple of men) outside the rigid separations of her tribe.
I found the book's tone extremely curious, which leads to my "Little Tent" joke. The whole thing is very episodic and much feels skimmed over too lightly. Diamant seems unwilling to use the strengths of the first person; Dinah narrates the events of her parents' and siblings' lives as well as her own in a reserved voice and with relatively little commentary. She tells us what her emotions were, but does not often feel them in the telling, so we are left with neither the moment's passion nor a future perspective's reflective wisdom on the meaning of those events. Perhaps it is because the narrative is not told from any defined point in the future from which she might be viewed as speaking (as it turns out, there is a reason for this, but it rests on an authorial decision I strongly disagree with: the narrative continues through Dinah's death. One can't expect too much of a dead speaker, I suppose.).
Diamant is not without talent, but this is her first novel and she may have bitten off more than she could deal with in it. There are flashes of real power in her writing, particularly in the second half of the book, after the death of Dinah's first husband, and I found myself genuinely moved at moments, but they all too soon faded back into telling instead of showing. We never get to know these people very well. One does not even have much sense of who the main character is within herself; most of what she does is observe others. (This goes to show how different people can get different things from a novel, because many of the Amazon.com commentors seemed to feel that they knew Dinah quite well.) The other characters are shadows, and the fact that their motivations remain so often hidden is frustrating to me. When Simon and Levi orchestrate the massacre, it seems a senseless act, especially since the motive given in the Biblical story does not apply. When Dinah displays occasional evidence of true personal power later in her life, we are impressed, but puzzled at its apparent rootlessness.
Someone at the office remarked that this is a book that can be enjoyed by religious or nonreligious people equally. This may well be true, because, for a book about the founding family of Judaism, there isn't any religion in it to speak of. The women of Jacob's family worship various family gods and occasionally fear demonic influence (while one anachronistically speculates that the gods may not exist at all), and the gods and goddesses of Egypt get their mentions later on, but except for Jacob's obsession with circumcision, God per se doesn't have any impact on the women's lives (maybe this is supposed to be A Point, but I wasn't sure about that). I found myself wondering why she had bothered to use these Biblical characters in her book. It might just as well have been about any tribe of Semitic shepherds. Joseph plays a role in the story, but he and his dreams, their truth or their falseness, are more alluded to than included.
I found the novel interesting mainly for its anthropological detail, although I am not sure how far the author can be trusted on that scoreI am dubious as to the level of obstetrical knowledge she suggests they had and skeptical about the religions. Far more I am annoyed by not one but two love-at-first-sight relationships Dinah enters into, which I can only interpret as authorial timidity or laziness, and by what the serious flaws in the book's structure and style. Overall, it wasn't bad, but I can't say I'd recommend it. I have a friend who really liked it, however, so I'd have to say that it definitely depends on whether or not you like "that sort of thing."
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson