I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked this up. The Red Tent was recommended to me by my mother, which doesn't usually happen because we don't read the same things, but more concerning than that, she recommended it because one of the inmates at the prison library she works in thought I would like it! He was right, I did enjoy it, but I didn't realise she talked about me enough for the inmates to be able to recommend books for me!
The story in The Red Tent is narrated by Dinah, the unheard of sister of Joseph (of dreamcoat fame), and his brothers, and daughter of Leah, Jacob's first wife. In the biblical story, Dinah only gets a brief mention when she is raped and her brothers exact a bloodthirsty revenge. What the author does in this story is flesh out her story from her birth to her death, totally fictionalised of course, but interesting all the same. As well as putting the so called rape in context, which in itself casts a very dubious shadow over Jacob and his sons, Dinah tells the story of her upbringing with four mothers and the very different lives men and women led in biblical times.
The cover of this book quotes this as 'The oldest love story never told', and this is true of this book in two very different ways. It is a love story between men and women, most notably Leah and Jacob and Rachel and Jacob, as well as the love affairs that Dinah herself is involved in, although these do not occur until fairly late in the book. However it is also a story of the love,protection and solidarity of women and the lengths they will go to to protect and look out for each other, in a society when men an women essentially lead separate lives.
It was the solidarity and community spirit of the women in this story that I found most interesting. The Red tent of the title actually refers to the tent (coloured red) where the women of the clan retired to for three days during their menstruation. But far from being seen as a stigma, they use this time to celebrate their womanhood and impart knowledge and comfort to each other. In most biblical stories, women are in the background, if they are present at all, but in this story, it is the women who keep the family/society running and they see themselves in this role.
Still running with the theme of bonding and solidarity between women, it was also interesting for me to read the author's viewpoint on how they felt about and dealt with sharing husbands, and in some cases, losing responsibility for their own children. The rivalry between Leah and Rachel is shown in a different light in this story, and the lesser known wives/handmaids who also bore children to Jacob felt very differently about childbirth, although Dinah has equal praise for all four of her mothers. Dinah herself has a child she is not mother too as a result of her husband being murdered, and her pain is heartfelt and desperate at times.
In brief, this book manages to detail both the pain and unfairness that women suffered, but also the solidarity and bonding that got them through life and also shows their absolute necessity in supporting each other through the hardships they suffer, both mental and physical.