It’s always a pleasure to read a book that will be a sure thing, a guaranteed delight, perhaps in a favorite genre or by a favorite author. However, it’s also important to read outside of one’s comfort zone. Whether the book is for a different age range or in a different genre, readers and writers can learn a lot by sampling writing that they don’t often encounter. It expands one’s definition of what to expect or how a story can be told. It breaks down biases about certain types of writing or certain authors. This experience can be a great growing experience for a reader. But that doesn’t mean it will always come easily.
Such was my experience reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. I had heard of the book, of course. It spent many weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and won widespread acclaim and appeal, both by critics and readers. I also love when an author explores a minor character in a famous text and gives readers new insight into that character, that world, and that text.
The Red Tent is the story of Dinah, who in the Book of Genesis is the youngest daughter of Jacob. She receives very little attention. All we know of Dinah is that she is violated by a man from another tribe. Diamant’s novel tells us the story of Dinah.
I am not the intended audience for the novel. When I saw the novel classified somewhere as “women’s fiction,” I didn’t give the label much credence, figuring that it was a marketing label applied to the book because a woman wrote it. However, within the first chapter, Dinah addresses the audience directly, using “us” to mean women and “them” or “they” to refer to men. I immediately felt shut out, an outsider, a non-participant in the text. Still, I read on, willing to accept my outsider status to a text outside my comfort zone.
But Dinah’s direct address is only the beginning. The novel is loaded with scenes, descriptions, and references that are meant specifically to bond the female narrator and her female audience. Descriptions of undulating motions, the sway of the earth, the rich, sensual touch of this or that, pervade the narration. Even the title refers to the menstrual hut in which women are relegated once a month, and where Dinah finds the greatest companionship and her entryway into womanhood. Over and over again, the descriptions in the novel celebrate women celebrating women, and I was left to watch without being able to share the experience.
I was further distanced from the story by the depictions of men, which might have been the most off-putting and uncomfortable part of the book for me. Nearly every male in Dinah’s story is either a brute or an idiot. There are exceptions; she does experience love for about ten minutes, and she has positive relationships with a few of her siblings. But for the most part, the men in her life are cruel patriarchs who destroy, burn, rape, and pillage, or laughable dolts who trip over themselves. There are even scenes in which the women laugh at and mock penises. The best male in Dinah’s story comes across as a semi-decent guy.
Over and over again, the descriptions in the novel celebrate women celebrating women, and I was left to watch without being able to share the experience.
All of these factors added up to make me feel unwelcome in the story. Yet I forged ahead, partly because I was interested in the story, partly because I stubbornly refused to be shut out, and mostly because a book has to be dreadfully awful or boring for me to set it aside. I finished the book, and yet waited almost a month before reviewing it because I wasn’t really sure how I felt. Nor was I sure I wanted to expose my thoughts and feelings about it. I’m still not really sure. But here I am.
I have contemplated the way this book made me feel diminished, an outsider, marginalized. Dare I say, objectified. It wasn’t pleasant. But I think, too, about all of the hundreds of years of literature that have done the same thing to women and other marginalized groups. Is the way I felt the same way women have felt reading male-centered narratives? Is it the way black readers have felt reading white-centered narratives? How about gay readers who read stories of “true love” where every man ends up paired with a woman and everyone is happy? Maybe what I learned from this novel was how demeaning it can feel to be actively shutout of the narrator’s story. In my writing, I always strive to be equal and fair and to keep my characters complex, but maybe I will give just a little more pause in the future to consider how someone other than a middle class, white, straight male reader would feel when reading one of my stories.
Maybe what I learned from this novel was how demeaning it can feel to be actively shutout of the narrator’s story.
After reaching that conclusion, I was able to move forward and critique the book itself. I think it’s a mixed bag. At times, the descriptions are vivid and the action compelling. Diamant really does evoke a complex, intricate civilization from the hazy Biblical setting. However, the first half of the novel suffers from a passive narrator and no apparent conflicts. As a little girl in a patriarchal society, Dina has little voice, but she is my narrator. I need her to have some sort of voice, yet halfway through the book, I knew almost nothing about her as a person. It wasn’t until the second half of the book, when her trials and adventures really begin, that her character takes shape. I don’t demand violence and action to keep me entertained (though I am male), but the first half of the book was exposition, really, with nothing to move the story forward. Diamant’s powers of description were compelling enough to keep me reading, but it was still a flaw in the novel that no character faced any challenges until half way through.
Overall, the novel strives to do something unprecedented, and ends up doing something remarkable but flawed. For readers interested in a similar concept using Virgil’s Aeneid, try Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia. Lavinia in Virgil’s text is a mere prize, a bride for a triumphant warrior. The novel brings her to life, both as a child and as a woman, and creates a much more concise, vivid world in doing so. Additionally, LeGuin adds a layer of the fantastic to the novel, in which the dying Virgil is communicating with Lavinia, his character, through a fevered dream. It is an approach that is both fresh and imaginative, and a pleasure to read.