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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book review: "The Dovekeepers"

The DovekeepersThe 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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  1. I gave this book an entire galaxy of was that good. Having read all of Ms. Hoffman's books, I thought this was her tour de force, her masterpiece. I read it in 2 days, nonstop, and was book-drunk for days afterward. I read it the day after it came out last year and the characters are still with me, like they've moved into my brain. I put this book in my top 10 of all time. xo

  2. Marion--two days!!! It took me six and a half weeks, almost all of that to get through the first half. I know a lot of people, including some big name authors, agree with you that this is her masterpiece. Personally, give me Hoffman's "Second Nature", which is on *my* short list of all time favorites!

  3. I'm fond of this sort of historical fiction, and will definitely give it a shot if I can run across it at the used book store--never read any Hoffman, but I have a real problem with magical 'realism'--it has to be done really well or it just seems unbelievable and derails the whole believability of the rest of the book. I have seen it done right, though, in which case it's really cool. Thanks for the fascinating review, Shay.

  4. Okay, I can do 500 pages but I don't have patience of 250 to get into the book.

    Happy Sunday, chica.

  5. I still feel an emotional connection the the Masada episode. . . . can easily understand how slavery and other major things stay with a people......just thought you might enjoy knowing this. And F**k tthe czar also:-)

    ALOHA from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral
    =^..^= <3
    > < } } ( ° >

  6. i am just not a fan of Hoffman's writing but thanks for reading/reviewing it

  7. Shay, I adore "Second Nature" (and "Turtle Moon"). I do love early Alice Hoffman the best...her writing fills a part of my soul that no other writer ever has, even after 50 years of reading. (Also Isabelle Allende & Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Discovering her writing was like finding a missing part of myself as I'm a bit of a "magic realism" thinker, too. I fucking deplore labels, but I love the words "magic realism". Sort of an oxymoron, right?

    I'm a speed reader (have to be with my book obsession) and try to read a book a day, plus poetry. I hope you're doing well. Here in Louisiana I'm longing for that first cool breath of Fall. Love & Hugs...Marion

  8. This sounds like a book written with a very personal goal, meaning the writer gets a bit lost in her own words and the story.

    It's interesting to read the diversity in your comment box about this one.


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