Alice Hoffman's tale of heartache and history

The epic scale of a tragic story numbs and grips Nicky Pellegrino.

Author Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers is heavy going, but enthralling even so. Photo / Supplied
Author Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers is heavy going, but enthralling even so. Photo / Supplied

I've read only a handful of the 23 adult novels US author Alice Hoffman has produced but I've enjoyed the way she marries a fey fairy tale quality with grittier real-world themes. So her latest book took me by surprise. The Dovekeepers (Simon & Schuster, $37) isn't fey at all, it's harrowing and epic, and has left a number of images seared on my brain that I'd rather forget.

The story, set in ancient Israel, is based on real events, although the characters are fictional. In 70AD, nearly a thousand Jews held on for nine months in a mountain stronghold in Judea as the Romans lay siege to it. It is believed only two women and five children survived the bloodbath.

Hoffman centres her retelling of this history on four women. Yael is downtrodden and submissive. Her mother died in childbirth and her father, an elite assassin, has always hated her for it. Yet, when they are forced to flee into the desert, it is Yael's spirit and strength that keeps them alive.

The pair seek refuge in Masada, Herod's fortress in the mountains between the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. It is there Yael becomes a dovekeeper and falls in with three other women.

Revka was once content as a baker's wife. Since then she has lived through unimaginable horror and loss, committed her own atrocity and been left with two mute grandsons and a burden of grief and guilt. Aziza is a young, beautiful warrior, as adept with weapons as any man, who finds love and destruction in equal measure. And Shirah is a wise woman who makes predictions and casts spells. Her passion for another woman's husband has brought her to Masada and sealed the fate of her family.

It took Hoffman five years of research and writing to complete this work and I can see why. It's a weighty thing, enormously detailed about everyday life. Women don't feature much in the history of this period and Hoffman's bid to redress the balance shows how little has changed in many ways. Beyond the basics of survival, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah have concerns that are just as familiar today: love, childbirth, friendship, putting food on the table, keeping family safe.

Personally, I had a few issues with The Dovekeepers. The first is the mock biblical style it is written in. There are times when the story slows and getting through this sort of prose is like swimming in syrup. The second is that it's too long. Surely, if some of the 500 pages had been cut, it would have been a better book for it. The third is that it's relentlessly tragic. There is vast suffering, atrocity after brutality, misery piled on to pain. Although this may be historically accurate, such large-scale suffering becomes depressing and, ultimately, numbing.

Despite all that, the story held and fascinated me. This is an ambitious, extraordinary book, with a vividness of place and character. Hoffman's imagination seems boundless and she took me to a world I won't forget. Although it was something of a relief to finish the book, I've thought about it daily since.

Possibly it won't please all of Hoffman's fans, but book clubs should seek out The Dovekeepers as should older teens or anyone with a passion for history re-imagined.

- Herald on Sunday

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