The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

Title: The Dovekeepers: A Novel
Author: Alice Hoffman
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 504 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Reads? New!
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Dovekeepers is the story of four women, Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah, who find themselves at Masada in 70 CE. I don’t consider it a spoiler to give away what happens at Masada, because it’s an at-least-relatively well-known historical event anyway, and because the bookflap tells you right off. I’m pretty sure nearly 2000 years is long enough for a spoiler warning to expire, and as with most historical fiction, it isn’t the what but rather the how that makes the book interesting. Masada was a fortress, the last holdout of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire, famous for the fact that rather than surrender or be captured when the siege broke, the rebels committed mass suicide. The Romans found only two women and five children surviving when they finally broke through. I didn’t mind that I knew, going in, that most of the characters would be dead by the end; instead I was wondering the whole time who would be the 7 to survive. (I was right on both women and on three of the children, for what it’s worth). Hoffman explains, in a short note at the end, some of the things that inspired the work — a trip to Masada and a collection of artifacts. Disjointed as they are, Hoffman draws imaginary threads between them, weaving them into the tapestry of the story. I love that she gave us that glimpse, to let us know that this book, while entirely fictitious, has such concrete roots. It’s a lovely marriage of fact and invention, masterfully handled.

For this review to make any sense, I have to introduce you to the women. Yael is a young woman whose mother died in her childbirth, for which her father has never forgiven her. She’s carried the psychological stigma of a murderess her whole life. She and her father, a famed assassin of the radical Sicarii, flee Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple, and spend months wandering in the wilderness before they come to Masada. Revka is an older woman, a refugee from a sacked town, traveling with her two grandchildren and her son-in-law, all of whom have witnessed shattering atrocities. The two young boys are so traumatized they no longer speak, and the son-in-law has turned into a Jewish version of a berserker warrior. Revka holds the family, such as it is, together. Aziza is a girl who was raised as a boy among the nomads of the Moab desert. She knows how to fight, how to shoot, how to ride, but has had to suppress that identity entirely in Masada, where women cannot so much as touch weapons without making them “unclean”. Shirah is the Witch of Moab, Alexandrian born, cousin to the leader of the rebels, and thus occupying a strange liminal state between outcast and honourable. All four of them end up working in the dovecotes, which indirectly keep the fortress afloat — their droppings are the fertilizer used in the fields and orchards. Their lives intertwine and entangle as their world decays around them, and they face not only personal challenges but the increasingly desperate situation of Masada. As the Roman legions draw near, the rains fail to come, and the food stores dwindle, fraught nerves and the threat of danger brings many secrets to the surface.

I was troubled, at first, by the structure of this book. It begins in first-person narrative from Yael, and remains in her voice for fully the first third of the book. I’m not a big fan of first-person narration to begin with; it’s difficult to do well, can become tedious, can lead to large gaps in the story, and has, for a lot of authors, become something of an easy crutch. But Hoffman’s quite good at what she does, and Yael’s voice was compelling enough that I overcame my distaste. Then, rather abruptly, we switch to Revka’s first-person narrative. Then Aziza’s. Then, finally, Shirah’s. Initially I felt cheated by this; I had gotten so invested in Yael and her journey that being ripped out of her head and plunked down in someone else’s felt unsettling. Yael remained in the story, still a part of events, but I no longer knew how she felt about things — I only got Revka’s perspective. And then that feeling repeated each time the narrator changed. Towards the end of the book, though, the stylistic reasons for the shifts became apparent. In many ways, this is a story about secrets, about what you hold in your heart and what you choose to share. It would be more difficult to convey that sense in a third-person or a more frequently rotating first-person narrative. I still wish I’d gotten more from each of the women along the way, but I can appreciate why Hoffman chose to tell her story in the way that she did. Of the four, Aziza’s was the story that felt least connected to the others — odd, perhaps, in that she’s the daughter of one major character and the lover of two secondary characters. But in a lot of ways, her voice seems the least well-developed; it felt as though her section could have as easily been told from Shirah’s perspective without much being lost. I still appreciated her presence, though, because she cast an interesting light on the gender issues of the story — and perhaps she had to have her own voice for that, if no other reason, in which case I just wish it had been better integrated.

Magic permeates this book, without turning it into a fantasy novel. It’s a tremendously thin line, and Hoffman walks it with great care. There’s no point where more than a few pages goes by without mention of some incantation or protective amulet or prophecy or divine intervention or ghostly presence — and yet it blends seamlessly into the world. It isn’t even particularly mystical, not so much esoteric or occult as just another side of life, another tool to use. There’s also not so much of the tang of the unknown about it; Jewish holy men perform magic regularly; a lesser caste peddle charms and talismans; the magic of women is forbidden yet tangibly present in the shadow-world they live in, hidden from the men. And it’s on that last that the book focuses. What I found particularly interesting is the way it all intersects with religion, absolutely inextricably, and how much of that focuses on the feminine and on polytheistic traditions — but not in an obnoxious way. It doesn’t overwhelm the story, and it isn’t as burdened by some of the more woobly Neopagan ideals as books like Mists of Avalon are. There’s something refreshingly plain and straightforward about it.

The trade of magic dominates so much of the interpersonal reactions in this book. Debts to each other, debts to god, debts to the dead, all of these things are real and vital for the characters; magic affects their lives on every level. And it’s dark — both the magic and the book overall, as you’d expect from something centered on a tragedy. But a lot of the darkness has nothing to do with the eventual outcome of the rebellion; these women suffer, sometimes by their own errors, sometimes by fate, sometimes by sheer bad luck, sometimes just through the consequences of living. As they suffer, so too do they persevere. There’s a lot in this book that felt very psychologically real to me — from issues of denial to self-harm, stages of depression, degrees of guilt and grief. In some ways, this makes it a bit of a brutal read, but I actually enjoyed that. It’s cathartic, in a way, and quite intense.

This book is not fluff. If you’re looking for historical fiction treated with a light hand, this is not it. The magic is bloody and requires sacrifice, the imagery is almost disturbingly vivid, the main characters are not always thoroughly likeable, and the whole thing does end in, you know, mass tragedy. I adored it. It’s one of those books that got into the back of my head and took up residence. It’s an oblique approach to history, a compelling story, and a thoroughly good read. I don’t think it’s a book that will please everyone, but it certainly pleased me.

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