27 February 2009


by Anita Diamant

Allen and Unwin Adult Fiction Historical Paperback rrp $23.95

The Red Tent is a richly woven story with many threads. Primarily it is the story of Dinah, the only daughter of the biblical patriarch Jacob. While Dinah herself is not a major figure in the Book of Genesis, she is the catalyst for significant events.

In Genesis, Dinah’s story is told through the eyes of the men around her. And there’s not much detail. Anita Diamant has taken a broader view and retold the story from a different perspective, a female one, Dinah’s own.

As much as this is Dinah’s personal tragedy and triumph, it is also the story of the women of Canaan. The narrative is rich with the details of their rites, their beliefs, their practise of midwifery, their daily domestic life and their relationship with the men around them. The title of the book, The Red Tent, refers to the menstrual tent where the women go to confirm their ‘sisterhood’ and to have a well earned rest from their ongoing work. On one level, the book is a celebration of the role of women.

On another level, it is a powerful family saga. Jacob has four wives, all sisters and each very different. So Dinah, the only daughter in the family, is beloved by four mothers, although her father barely knows her. Her twelve brothers are not interested in their sister. She has little to do with them except the eldest Rueben, kind Judah and little Joseph, who is close to her own age. But her family life is a happy one and as she grows towards womanhood, her Aunt Rachel teaches her the skills of a midwife.

While visiting Shechem with Rachel, to aid the birthing of King Hamor of Egypt’s favourite concubine, Dinah and the heir Prince Shalem fall in love. They are married with his parents’ blessing and a dowry is sent to Jacob. Dinah’s brothers are enraged. They don’t recognise the marriage which was performed without their family permission. They view their sister as kidnapped and raped.

Even though they have no personal affection for her, and Jacob cannot even remember what she looks like, the men of the tribe of Jacob take revenge. With terrible consequences.

The Red Tent is not all factual as there are many gaps in the historical record of Dinah’s story but the author has provided notes on how she reached her fictional conclusions, where there was no definitive answer available. This in itself is fascinating reading.

The book will predominantly appeal to women although its rich historical context and details will hold the attention of anyone with an interest in biblical or early history. I am all of the above and I loved it.