The Hebrew month of Elul – the last month of the year – is ushered in with the sound of the shofar (the ram’s horn). This primal ancient call is supposed to wake the spirit to repentance and renewal. It is also a month of granting and asking for forgiveness. It is the month to search one’s heart and come close to God in preparation for the coming days of judgement.
Alice Hoffman has chosen the calendar settings wisely for her upcoming novel The Dovekeepers, which is a remarkable re-telling of the Masada story. Set between 70 CE and 73 CE, the story tracks the rhythm of the weeks, the months, the seasons in the period from the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to the mass martyrdom of 900 Jews in their desert fortress the night before the invaders breeched the walls to discover they had achieved a completely empty victory. The Israelites had already determined their own day of judgement.
Masada has a place in Jewish history not unlike Gallipoli does in Australian. It is a site of a magnificently pointless clash of civilisations, a loss of epic proportions, a place of ghosts and spirits. Visit Masada today and it is easy to imagine the sound of the shofar blown in Elul that very last time.
It certainly fired Alice Hoffman’s imagination. Her story of four women who were there until the very end is compelling, powerful, evocative and more. Her characterisation is detailed and believable. The plot is interesting and well developed and for those unfamiliar with the history, it would no doubt be fascinating. Hoffman’s gift is her cadence and tone. She treats both her characters and her story with respect. Her imagery is finely crafted, and it is rendered with considerable literary skill.
Hoffman has constructed The Dovekeepers in four parts, each told in the voice of one of the four women. The motherless Yael seeks refuge at Masada with her father, an assassin still bitter from the loss of his wife. Revka and her two grandsons have survived a massacre by the Romans. Aziza is the Boadica of the piece, a woman who fights like a man despite the strictures against her. Shirah is the midwife, a woman versed in herbs, magic and medicine. All four women work in the dovecote at the highest point in the fortress.
I must confess I have always had a soft spot for women’s fiction based on Biblical “events”. Rebecca Kohn’s The Gilded Chamber about Queen Esther completely sucked me although I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a good book. Ditto Sarah Halter’s Zipporah: Wife of Moses. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent is “a woman’s-eye view” of early Jewish history and it has a huge and devoted fan base. What was fascinating about that book, at least to me, is the depiction of a people wrestling with the responsibility of moving from chaos into civilisation. Personally however, I find The Dovekeepers a much more substantial novel and certainly as a piece of writing, it is a pleasure.
The Dovekeepers comes with a slew of praise from all the right people.
“Beautiful, harrowing, a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.”
—Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate in Literature
“I am still reeling from THE DOVEKEEPERS–from the history Alice Hoffman illuminates, from the language she uses to bring these women to life. This novel is a testament to the human spirit and to love rising from the ashes of war. But most of all, this novel is one that will never be forgotten by a reader.”
—Jodi Picoult, author of Sing You Home
“In her remarkable new novel, Alice Hoffman holds a mirror to our ancient past as she explores the contemporary themes of sexual desire, women’s solidarity in the face of strife, and the magic that’s quietly present in our day-to-day living. Put The Dovekeepers at the pinnacle of Hoffman’s extraordinary body of work. I was blown away.”
—Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed
From the publisher:
Over five years in the writing, The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of imagination and research, set in ancient Israel.
In 70 CE, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean, desert, Masada. Only two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman weaves a spellbinding tale of four extraordinary bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom comes to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wide, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by their own witness. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.
The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets — about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and who they love.
The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece.