Pick two books at random and read them simultaneously. That’s pretty much what I did this week with The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.
The Red Tent is about menstrual blood and childbirth and midwives. Set in an Old Testament world where women worship their own goddesses rather than the God of Jacob and Abraham, it’s a true woman’s book - it rewrites a male story from a female point of view.
Vernon God Little ‘writes the body’ of a stinky teenage lad, positively plunges you, in fact, into an adolescent boy world of knicker-sniffing and mother-hating – which is hard to stomach when a) you are a mother and b) you’re also reading The Red Tent.
What both novels do successfully though, is to absorb you utterly into their worlds.
A few years ago I read extracts from The Red Tent with a literacy student, a Jewish woman who originated from Aden, and who with her sisters was forced to leave school at 12. My student disapproved of The Red Tent because it is a re-imagining of the Biblical story of Dinah, and as a devoutly Orthodox person she felt uncomfortable with a re-versioning of the Torah. It also brought back memories of her own childhood in a society where girls were expected to do housework, marry, bear children and little more.
Her response was in part a testimony to the level of vivid detail in the storytelling - Diamant pays great attention to everyday activities like spinning and weaving so breathes life into them.
I almost gave up on Vernon God Little several times – set in the aftermath of a Texas high school shooting, it’s not a comfortable read. The noose is pulled tighter and tighter around our hero’s neck - hard to read, but harder to write. I admire any writer who can unflinchingly take a character to dark places without resorting to sentimentality. The language is astonishing (did I say it won the Booker Prize in 2003?) and the ending pays you back.
Both amazing reads, but perhaps not in the same week.