Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors and I love her juxtaposition of the mundane and magic in contemporary settings. The Dovekeepers is far removed from our humdrum, daily lives as it is set in ancient Israel but the magic remains in this extensively researched historical novel.
Following the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 and the destruction of the temple, many Jews fled the Romans and crossed the Judean desert, establishing a Zealot settlement at the remote natural fortress, Masada. Overlooking the Dead Sea, this rugged outpost was considered virtually impregnable but the Roman Empire was determined to conquer Masada, once the site of King Herod's palaces. In AD73, Flavius Silva, the Roman Governor, succeeded in breaching the fortress but not before the Jewish inhabitants (numbering almost 1,000) organised a mass suicide, preferring a glorious death to a life of infamy. According to the ancient historian, Josephus, only two women and five children survived.
In The Dovekeepers, Hoffman tells the story from the Jewish women's point of view, using four different female narrators, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah all of whom work in the dovecotes. They are exceptionally strong women who have suffered so much yet make their mark in what is most definitely a man's world. Yael, whose own mother died giving birth to her, is shunned by her father but, following the fall of Jerusalem, they eventually reach Masada. Revka, traumatised by the brutal death of her daughter at the hands of Roman soldiers, comes to Masada with her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they witnessed. Aziza, raised as a boy, longs to show her warrior skills but has to do so by subterfuge. Shirah, Aziza's mother, has to conceal her magical skills for fear of being an outcast again.
In a novel of epic range, the author brings us into the Judean desert in the 1st century - we feel the relentless heat, the harshness of the rocks underfoot, the endless hardship of daily life. All these women hope for is a better life for their children but they know what fate awaits them.
Yes, there is magic but it's dark and disturbing, something to be concealed by women who realise that whatever they do they can't escape what fate has already decreed.
At 500 pages, with detailed descriptions, this is a novel which requires focus and concentration. It is much more intense than Alice Hoffman's previous novels but it's well worth the effort. My only slight criticism would be that some of the descriptions veer on the flowery, over-written side but overall it's an engrossing read.
Alice Hoffman has succeeded in bringing a long-lost world into our contemporary lives and at times, one wonders if there are more similarities than differences! Highly recommended for patient readers.