Women’s secrets in ‘The Red Tent’

Not all blood comes of violence.

This beautiful novel, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant shares the secret of blood not spilled, but rather cherished. It is a haunting insight into the private and largely untold stories of women in a biblical age, and of the Red Tent where they gather each month.

The novel tells the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister to Joseph. Dinah features only very briefly in the bible story that recounts the story of her many siblings, but in Diamant’s tale Dinah is front and centre. She is transformed from the invisible, to the influential and used as a vehicle to share a view of what it was to be a woman amongst women, and amongst rough men in a harsh and basic period of history.

‘We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father, Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother. On those rare occasions when I was remembers, it was as a victim.’

This story is part history, part romance, part violence and part inspiration. Despite being a work of fiction, it reads as incredibly authentic, and you can almost feel the heat and hardship that these characters live amongst. I found it incredibly fascinating to hear about the bonds shared between women, and of the conflicts and competitions that existed between wives and sisters. The story of the Red Tent with it’s camaraderie, restfulness and sweet aroma’s was intoxicating, and I was at once both horrifying and enlivened by the recounting of childbirth in a such a raw and non-medicalised world:

‘There was one great gift that my teachers learned from the women of Shechem’s valley. It was not an herb or a tool, but a birth song, and the most soothing balm that Inna or Rachel had ever used. It made laboring women breathe easier and caused the skin to stretch rather than tear. It eased the worst pains. Those who died – for even with a midwife as skilful as Inna some of them died – even they smiled as they closed their eyes forever, unafraid.’

The turn this story takes at its half-way mark is tragic, and references back to Dinah as victim in the biblical version of this story. It is both violent and heartbreaking and very nearly ends Dinah herself. It shows a darkness in Dinah’s family, but it is responded to in a hushed, measured but passionate way. In fact, that is how the whole book is voiced. It is hushed but heartfelt. It is deeply feminine.

I read The Red Tent with my book club, and I hear that it’s an absolute favourite amongst book clubs around the world. I think I understand why – the subject matter gives permission for women to share their own experiences with each other, about maturing, about childbirth, about family and about the relationships they share with men, and more interestingly perhaps with the other women in their lives.

Coming from a family of sisters, with a doting and inspirational mother, I appreciated the sense of women’s space and commune found in this story.  I fell head-first into this book, not surfacing again until the story was over. The setting, the biblical context of Jacob and his family was one that was really familiar to me, and this added to the richness of the story. As a result, the story was truly multi-dimension, and the way in which Diamant structured this novel reminded me of another of my favourites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play by Tom Stoppard which places Hamlet in the wings, and his bit-part colleagues centre stage. So clever.

When I heard Sophie Cunningham speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival a few weeks ago (read about it here, listen to it here) she spoke of female invisibility and of the failure to give voice to women’s stories. I thought of this book while I was listening to Sophie, and was grateful for this important, albeit fictional, illumination of a previously invisible woman.

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