Fiction review: The story of four very different women who become dovekeepers in a Jewish stronghold is weighty with detail and sorrow.
In 2006, Israeli scientists successfully germinated a date palm seed taken from Masada, the last Jewish stronghold against the Romans. Excavated in the 1960s but not planted for 40 years, the seed has been dated to approximately 70 A.D., when Jerusalem fell to the Romans, the Second Temple was destroyed, and Masada was under a three-year siege. Today that seed is a 5-foot-tall tree (named Methuselah). Despite the passage of almost 2,000 years and the mass suicide of the more than 900 people who chose to die at their own hands rather than those of the conqueror, a living organism from Masada survives and flourishes.
"The Dovekeepers" is Alice Hoffman's literary version of the Methuselah palm. Visiting Masada was, Hoffman says, an intense and moving spiritual experience: "In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, 'The Dovekeepers' came to life as well."
The novel follows the lives of four women who come by arduous paths to Masada, where they become dovekeepers: Yael, the assassin's daughter whose father rejects her because her mother died giving her birth; Revka, the baker's wife who witnesses the brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; Aziza, a warrior woman raised as a boy; and Shirah, practitioner of magic and carrier of women's wisdom. The four weave in and out of each other's narratives, reinforcing their common plight as women broken, wounded, traumatized, often guilt-ridden, and yet determined to survive. "Being human means losing everything we love best in the world," Shirah asserts, "But would you ask to be anything else?" Later, Revka concedes, "our waking life is formed by our sorrow."
Circumstance is one source of this sorrow. Male dominance is another. "No man can understand what a woman may be driven to do," Yael thinks. Shirah acknowledges, "We did not agree with the rules of men, and we ignored certain decrees, even though the sort of magic women ... were known for was outside the law and therefore considered to be a sin." Myths, omens, magic and faith are the frames through which the narrators make sense of their experience; every detail carries symbolic weight in this world, weight that ultimately drags like an anchor against their lives.
The weight dragged against this reader, too. Hoffman creates a vividly detailed world that I found mesmerizing -- for the first couple hundred pages. I tasted the salt, felt the heat of the desert, yearned for water, ached against injustice and cruelty, pondered the meaning of magic and omens. But ultimately the four narrators seemed less like real women than the four queens of a deck of cards, archetypes rather than characters, the details too repetitive and portentous. There is much to be admired in this novel, but, paradoxically, there would have been far more to admire were there less of it.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.