The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"The Dovekeepers" is a novel told by four narrators, four women who find themselves at the mountain stronghold of Masada as it tries to hold out against the Romans. Seldom have I come away from a book with so many conflicting and passionate feelings about it, both good and bad. Much of the time, this was one of the most annoying novels I have ever forced myself to slog through. However, when it picked up, particularly in the second half, it was can't-put-it-down engrossing, and I know I'll remember the four women who tell the story for a long time to come.
First, the bad: the affectations and irritations started before the text even began, with a page that says "Part One, Summer 70 C.E.". C.E.? I had to look it up. It means "Common Era" and is essentially the same thing as the familiar "A.D." Throughout the first section of the book, which runs 150 odd pages, Hoffman finds it necessary to toss in the Hebrew names for just about everything. To wit: "We waited for the morning star, which we named Cochav hashachar, and others call Venus". This happens on nearly every page, in reference to all things great and trivial, and breaks the flow every couple of paragraphs. This Catholic girl just really doesn't need to know the Hebrew word for tea pot, thank you very much.
Also, in addition to an endless, teeth-grating amount of detail about ancient religious customs, Hoffman's narrators consistently refer to God as "Adonai.". If two pages went by anywhere in that first section without an Adonai or two, I missed it. With apologies to Walt Whitman, I wished these characters had not made me sick discussing their duty to God. To make it all worse, Yael, the first narrator, fills us in about her menstruation on a regular basis.
In the later stages of the book, these things largely give way to endless repetition about people's "fate" and how things are "written". Nonetheless, magic is a continuous theme, with people trying to change outcomes, even as Hoffman beats the reader over the head with fatalism. I know from having read some twelve earlier Hoffman novels, that she likes magic and magical realism, which works fine in those books, but I wondered why she worked so hard in this one to immerse the reader in this ancient world, and to fill it with the tiniest details to make it real, only to repeatedly throw in completely unbelievable--if poetic--flights of magic.
My final gripe is that, even though I know from her previous books that Hoffman knows how to write the progression of a love relationship, in this book, it's always lust at first sight, fated, written, etcetera, and her characters risk everything, even their children, without much other reason ever being shown. Along with the very formal schoolroom English the narrators speak in, it made the whole thing feel like a play, not something real and immediate that I could relate to. For example, when people die, surviving relatives tear their garments, which may have been an actual custom, but to me it smacked of hoary bible tales about gnashing teeth, and didn't bring these characters' pain home the way it should have.
Okay. Now the good. Though she really needed the services of a brave editor, Hoffman did manage to make this ancient world and its people come to life. Her descriptions of the desert and of ancient cities like Jerusalem and Alexandria, as well as Masada itself, really put the reader there.
Mid-way though this 500-page novel, things pick up at last. From there on, I got caught up more and more in the characters and their struggles. Each of the four narrators is fascinating in her own right and in her own way. Yael is a red-haired girl blamed by her assassin father for her mother's death in childbirth, and yet she will one day face down a leopard, and later, a lion, unarmed. Revka's two grandsons were rendered mute after having seen Roman thugs torture and murder their mother. Aziza was allowed to learn the things normally reserved for boys, and she is an archer, rider, and warrior to be reckoned with. Shirah is the "Witch of Moab" and Aziza's mother, fighting with another woman over the man they both love. All four women work in the dovecote at Masada, and their stories intertwine throughout the whole of the book. It is so refreshing to hear a story like this told by and about women, and a lively and resourceful group they are. Another good thing about the book is that the ending is extremely well done.
If Hoffman could have just reined herself in a little bit and concentrated on her story without all the instruction, and if she could have decided whether she wanted to tell a realistic recreation of the story of Masada, or if she wanted to tell a story about spells and potions, it would have been a better book.
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