‘The oldest love story never told’
‘This fictive flight based on the Genesis’ mention of Dinah, offspring of Jacob and Leah…celebrates the ancient continuity and unity of women’ Kirkus Reviews.
So many things happened in Dinah’s life that moved me, connected me with her, that when I had finished the book I found myself searching for the Bible to read about this character, that is mentioned so briefly, and discover the reality of her existence.
This book starts with Dinah’s prologue, addressing the reader directly. This is almost invasive yet of course gets your full attention. As she (Dinah) is mentioned so little in the Bible, the story is created around the lives of figures whose names we do recognise, even if we know little of them, and although this is a fictional novel, its characters and some elements of the story are known to be true.
By the end of the first page you become completely attached to the character and by the end of the novel, thanks to Anita Diamant’s creativity in the telling of the story, she is so familiar to the reader. Diamant begins by explaining how she, Dinah, is never remembered for being anything other than the cause of the massacre in Shechem, when her brothers killed the entire town, however, through her retelling of the story hopes to acknowledge some of her more noble qualities and achievements.
The main character, and narrator of the story, Dinah, daughter of the Prophet Ya’qub (Jacob), starts the novel way before she was born when Jacob first met her aunt, his first love and divides the book into three chapters. Beginning with ‘My Mother’s Stories’, Dinah opens the doors to the traditions, practices and day-to-day lives of Jacob’s four wives (who were half sisters through their father) and their offspring and this world proves to be a fascinating one for the modern reader. Her mother’s stories give a necessary background to the life before Dinah came to be born, how her story came to be, and, in the end, why it would be so tragic.
We, as modern women, go through our adult lives as if nothing unites us and we are completely out of synch with one another, the idea of ‘womankind’ is now completely alien to us. However, the beauty of it was such a reality for the characters in ‘The Red Tent’, and the women of that time. It describes how, every month, during the time of menstruation, the women rested together in one tent in the village. It describes how they cooked and sang together, prayed and sewed together; keeping their own company while their male companions knew none of them.
Dinah’s narration of the time before she existed emphasises the male dominance of Jacob’s seed, up until her birth as the only girl and makes the telling of the story from a female perspective about the lives of these women all the more important; they are characters whose lives and stories could too easily have gone untold.
Although as Muslims we will never know what it is like for our fathers to marry four sisters it reminds me of the community and how the other women are like aunties to us. These women tell us stories and we sit and listen to their lessons just how Dinah’s mother and aunties would transmit their knowledge and advice to her, the only girl amongst so many boys.
‘If you want to understand any woman you must first ask her mother and listen carefully’ – The Red Tent
Diamant drew me in right from the beginning, enticing the reader to her table of memories. Promising you will be satisfied with her tale and I, for one, definitely was. I would read some pages and laugh out loud, reading others I couldn’t help but cry. Continually learning about these true Biblical characters through this novel, however fictional, gave me an insight into an ancient time and an historical era I had never before explored.
As Muslims we know not to talk about Allah’s prophets in a derogatory manner. Diamant, as a Jewish novelist, is not as careful. It is extremely apparent in the way she speaks of Ya’qub’s father in-law and uncle, a man we do not know much about in revealed scripts in terms of his character. Laban is written to have been an abusive drunk who, to say the least, was unkind to his wives. Ya’qub himself is not spoken badly about and Diamant actually reveals his very good qualities, however, there are areas of his personal life she feels necessary to explore that I don’t feel concern us. The Prophet Yusuf is also spoken about in a fond manner though not in the light of whom we know him to be.
These characters, although not correctly written about in Islamic terms, are not what I felt the novel was focusing on. It built on what little we know of a Biblical character and brought her to life, following Ya’qub’s only daughter through her many tragic years. It is a well-told story of her life and I would strongly recommend this novel as an emotional journey well worth taking.
Abdiya Iman Meddings