The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Just finished reading the Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman.  Set in ancient Israel the Dovekeepers tells the story of four remarkable women, the struggles they have endured and the friendship they share.  Whilst this is a work of fiction it is based on actual events that took place in 70 AD when over 900 Jews fled the Romans and made a settlement in the fortress Masada.

This is an incredibly moving and tragic story full of detail and populated with outstanding characters whose lives are mesmerising to read about.  In four individual sections we come to know Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah.  All these women have come to Masada under different circumstances, they all have unique stories to tell and yet their stories intertwine in a satisfying way.  We begin with Yael.  Her mother died in childbirth and her father has never forgiven her for the loss of his wife.  Following the fall of Jerusalem Yael and her father flee into the desert with another family where they endure hardships and great suffering but eventually reach the fortress where Yael is assigned the duties of dovekeeper.  This is where she meets Revka.  Revka crossed the desert with her son in law and her two grandsons, who no longer talk after watching the horrific murder of their mother at the hands of the Romans.    Aziza is also a dovekeeper.  She is the daughter of Shirah, brought up on the Iron Mountain as a boy, taught to ride and fight and happiest when around the warriors rather than the women.  And, finally, Shirah, feared and shunned.  Shirah was brought up in Alexandria where she was taught ancient magic and the ways of wise women.  Originally respected and revered such practices were now forbidden and anyone practicing magic or worshipping idols, although still sought out in secret by desperate women, would be called a witch and cast out.  Shirah has crossed the desert for love.

All four women move the story forward in their own individual chapters and this is done in such a way as to provide you with their history and introduce you to their links to each other.  All four are strong individuals, made so by the trials they have suffered and the secrets they keep.  These are harsh times indeed and this story doesn’t flinch away from telling things as they were.

Exactly how historically correct this is I wouldn’t like to say but the story provides such a wealth of detail about how people lived and behaved that it’s impossible not to get caught up in their lives and to read on with every mouting horror as the story reaches its drastic finale. I think the title – the Dovekeepers – belies the true nature of the book.  It sounds so gentle and peaceful and yet the content is anything but.

In terms of criticisms I did have my doubts when I first started reading, and, truthfully it did take a good few chapters before I became hooked by Yael’s story but once I reached that point the book had me in it’s clutches.  It’s not an easy or light read.  The subject matter is tragic after all and reading a story based on actual events which left only two women and five children surviving at their conclusion was never going to be lacking in emotion.  That being said, this is really well told with great imagination.  It’s perhaps not what I have come to expect when picking up one of Hoffman’s novels.  They’re usually more contemporary and always have fairly uplifting magical themes running through them which is not so much the case here.  Obviously we have Shirah and her potions and spells and there is a lot of superstition and talk of demons but it has a decidedly different feel than I would normally have expected.

I would definitely recommend this book, as I said, it’s not an easy read, but it is certainly gripping and I think this will become one of Alice Hoffman’s most outstanding novels.

Rating -A

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2 Responses to “The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman”

  1. Andrea

    I listened to an interview with Alice Hoffman on a radio show, The Book Report, and was intrigued enough to go buy the book. Loved it!

    The radio interview can be found in the archives section of http://bookreportradio.com if anyone is interested – gives a bit of background on the creation of the book. Very interesting!

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