My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Goodreads: Over five years in the writing, Alice Hoffman’s most ambitious and mesmerizing novel ever, a triumph of imagination and research set in ancient Israel.
The author of such iconic bestsellers as Illumination Night, Practical Magic, Fortune’s Daughter, and Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on Earth, Alice Hoffman is one of the most popular and memorable writers of her generation. Now, in The Dovekeepers, Hoffman delivers her most masterful work yet—one that draws on her passion for mythology, magic, and archaeology and her inimitable understanding of women.
In 70 CE, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean desert, Masada. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic historical event, Hoffman weaves a spellbinding tale of four extraordinary, bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her twin 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 another soldier. Shirah 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, as the Romans draw near. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.
This novel is Alice Hoffman’s masterpiece.
My take: I knew little of Masada before I read this book. What I did know was on a scholarly level. Just the facts but I'd forgotten them. What was reported by the scholar and historian, Josephus, is that the only survivors of Masada were two women and five children. Masada was built into a cliff by King Herod and had changed hands a few times over the hundred years before the Jewish people made their last stand before falling to the Romans.
Hoffman researched extensively and weaved as much fact into the story as she could, including artifacts found at the site and scattered throughout Europe today in museums.
Hoffman also invents characters and experiences that are so detailed, I believe they are alive. Given, there were times that the story seemed overly repetitive and I started to feel bored but Yael's story grabbed me, Revka kept me interested, Aziza was a little strange while Shirrah tied it all up and we circled back to Yael who seemed to thread all of the elements back together.
Each woman is brought to Masada for a different reason and under different circumstances. Each woman represents an element; fire, water, air and earth (metal). All are troubled by their sins and seek absolution and peace. Every one of them finds it in their own way.
The last 150 pages had me absolutely riveted and heartsick. The story, detail, and sensory descriptions transported me to Masada and the last few days of the conflict. I forgot I was reading a book.
The story is laced with symbolism, Deity and magic. Hoffman includes the cruelty of the Roman soldiers as they tortured their prisoners in horrific ways, including crucification. Also, the reader is introduced to a pure Jewish group who also seems to follow some of the Christian tenets, the Essenes. They are credited for writing, keeping and hiding the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Above all, the story captures the emotion of this historical event that flows with blood and violence which this era richly contained. It broke my heart. It was amazing.