Set in 70A.D. during the Roman occupation of ancient Judea, The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman follows the travels and challenges of four Judean women running from the Roman invasion and their own pasts. These are independent women whose lives interconnect during the siege of Masada, the mountain fortress where the remnants of Judean resistance held out for several years against Roman assault. Hoffman’s novel is divided into four parts and each woman is given a section telling the story of her life and of her journey to Masada.
The Dovekeepers begins with Yael’s narration and the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman legion. Yael is motherless and is the assassin’s daughter turned nomad with the fall of the city walls. Yael lives primarily in isolation believing she is different and cursed by the angel of death until she discovers the warm touch of another. Revka, a baker’s wife, lived a life of good fortune until the Romans arrival. She escapes the Roman slaughter of her village with her two young grandsons and seeks shelter within the high fortress walls of Masada. Aziza was raised as a boy and, like her warrior father, she appears to be fearless and is able to fight; yet she maintains a fear of womanhood. Then there is Shirah, born in Roman Alexandria, she is wise in the ancient ways and is almost mystically insightful.
Through these four women, Hoffman’s writing brings forth the tensions and struggles of the ancient Judeans amongst themselves and against the Roman incursion. Through each character’s story, the reader gets the sense of a changing world where many fight to prevent its total collapse.
Alice Hoffman’s writing is beautiful. At times, her narrative is mesmerizing and dreamlike as Hoffman leads her reader through the story. I liked how she gave voice to each of her characters and let the women tell the story; it seemed a very intimate approach to a rather harrowing tale. The novel’s subject is gloomy, the siege of Masada did not end well as the back cover book synopsis states, yet Hoffman presents The Dovekeepers with such authenticity that I was compelled to keep reading and hope for each character’s safety.
The novel’s flow suffered from time to time with prolonged prosaic moments. This was especially apparent during the long treks through the deserts leading to Masada, but such times only showed Hoffman’s skill as a powerful writer. Despite a few slow moments, the entirety of The Dovekeepers was a very satisfying read.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Scribner. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.