Alice Hoffman’s “The Dovekeepers’’ is a splendid entertainment, a harrowing, thrilling, feminist historical novel fueled to fever pitch by a rich imagination. Although it plays on some of her favorite themes - magic, mystery, witchcraft, strong women - it’s a departure for the prolific author of popular women’s fiction. This novel is short on the happy endings Hoffman’s fans may hope for, but readers looking for a compelling story full of vivid characters in a dramatic and haunting setting won’t be disappointed.
In 70 AD, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a number of Sicarii, militant Jewish rebels, made their way to Masada, a fortress built by King Herod on a high plateau in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. By the year 73, with the Roman army set to overrun the fortress, the rebels, who numbered 900 men, women, and children, devised a suicide scheme, rather than submit to the Romans. Through a series of circumstances, two women and five children end up surviving. In this novel Hoffman imagines the lives of the two women survivors and the lives of two friends who perished.
The women meet when they are assigned to work in the dovecotes, caring for the birds. Each woman has come to Masada through different circumstances. Each narrates one of the four sections of the novel that begins in the summer of 70 and ends seven years later.
Yael is the daughter of a Sicari, the assassin Yosef bar Elhanan, who rejected his daughter because his wife died giving birth to her. Yael, her father, and her brother flee Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple and trek across the desert to Masada. Along the way Yael begins a passionate affair with one of her father’s comrades, a married man, and becomes pregnant.
Revka is the wife of a baker killed by Roman soldiers who raided their settlement. Escaping through the desert, Revka is forced to watch as her daughter is raped and disemboweled by renegade Roman soldiers. The crime renders Revka’s two young grandsons mute and her son-in-law crazed by grief.
Aziza grew up in Moab among a fierce tribe of pagan nomads. At her mother’s insistence, her foster father, a wealthy trader, raised her as a boy, training her to be an expert archer and horseman. At Masada she disguises herself as her brother so she can become a warrior.
Shirah, Aziza’s mother, is a healer and a midwife, believed by some to be a witch, who still worships the outlawed ancient goddess Ashtoreth and embraces the forbidden feminine aspect of God. She was born in Alexandria, the daughter of a kedesha, a woman meant for the use of high priests. Sent at age 12 to live with relatives in Jerusalem, Shira became pregnant by a married cousin and was banished to the wilderness. But the trader from Moab, struck by her beauty, bought her and made her one of his wives.
Hoffman spent years researching “The Dovekeepers.’’ Her mastery of historical detail is impressive, evoking the time and place, enriching her characters, creating a story that engages emotions as well as intellect. Her writing is elegant and passionate, occasionally rising to an Old Testament cadence distractingly reminiscent of those biblical movie extravaganzas of the 1950s. The world she describes is one of myths, symbols, portents, omens, dreams, spells, curses, strange ancient customs, and practices. The women’s stories intertwine and unfold against a landscape soaked in blood, not only the blood of violence but menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth.
“The Dovekeepers’’ is a remarkable novel, the product of thorough research, a combination of good writing, affecting themes, and dramatic storytelling. It’s an enthralling tale that lingers in the mind.
Diane White, a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., can be reached at email@example.com.