Guest Review: The Dovekeepers – Alice Hoffman

This is another review for keepcalmandreadabook from my lovely colleague, fellow book lover Jane.

“The lives of four sensuous, bold and remarkable women intersect in the year 70 AD, in the desperate days of the siege of Masada, when supplies are dwindling and the Romans are drawing near. All are dovekeepers, and all are keepers of secrets.”

I’d never read a book by Alice Hoffman before, but looked forward to this one as it came highly recommended. Hoffman is known for her novels that are shot through with mysticism. The Dovekepeers, however, is different – it still has the magic, but this time with a historical twist.

This is a tale of four strong, fascinating Jewish women in AD 70. It is initially narrated by Yael, the assassin’s daughter, who begins her story as she flees from Jerusalem ahead of an unforgiving Roman army. Escaping across the dessert, Yael must face tremendous hardship, yet she is redeemed by unexpected love. Her desperate desert journey takes her to Masada, a mountain fort and one of the last Jewish strongholds, where she takes her place working among the Dovekeepers while fighting to keep her own secrets.

Revka, the baker’s wife, takes up the story from Yael. A Masada dovekeeper already, she has also loved and lost. Her life is tainted by secrets and sadness. She finds solace in caring for her grandchildren and forms an unexpected alliance with Yael as Masada falls under threat.

Aziza, the warrior’s daughter, picks up the narrative after Revka. Hers is of a life of freedom constrained by the needs to confirm to life in Masada, working as a dovekeeper alongside her mother, sister, Yael and Revka. Aziza must keep secret who she longs to be.

Then there is the beautiful, complex Shirah; the Witch of Moab, central to the narratives of all the other women. Tattooed, mysterious and steeped in the arts of healing, spells and knowledge – usually the preserve of the men – Shirah is on a dangerous path.

The four stories blend together in an almost seamless narrative, with each woman retaining her own voice. The book is well constructed and well researched, but it is not an uplifting read. Instead it is a story of endurance and fearlessness focussing on the bravery of women in a brutal time and of a people willing to fight, and die, for their beliefs.

The scouring heat and winds of the desert are omnipresent in a tale of hardship and hard-won existence in which Alice Hoffman creates believable characters in an almost old testament setting. The subject matter might mean that it is probably is not the best introduction to Hoffman’s work, it can sometimes be unrelentingly bleak, but it is an important work nonetheless.

Many thanks to Jane for the review.

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