Women persevere through trials of ancient world

Oct 10 2011 - 11:30am

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"THE DOVEKEEPERS." By Alice Hoffman. Scribner. $27.

If a world of strong women and their complex relationships with one another doesn't draw you into Alice Hoffman's brilliant new novel, "The Dovekeepers," read it for Hoffman's fine sense of narrative, history and detail as she shares the story of four women who come by various paths to Masada.

Masada is the mountain in the desert where 900 Jews held out for months against Roman armies in ancient Israel. Hoffman introduces her four main characters at a leisurely pace, first Yael, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father resents her for it. Revka is a baker's wife who saw her husband and daughter slain, and now cares for her daughter's two sons. Aziza, daughter of a warrior, is raised as a boy and is skilled in fighting. And Shirah is a woman of magic and medicine who keeps her own secrets while helping other women handle theirs.

Each woman is broken and hurt in some significant way. Yael seeks the love of a strong man in the face of her father's rejection. Revka carries failure with her, because she blames herself for the death of her daughter and her grandsons' fate. Aziza is torn between the world she was born to, and the life of a warrior where she must hide who she really is. Shirah keeps the biggest secret of all -- hiding her love for a man she can never publicly have.

Hoffman skillfully weaves their lives and stories together as all the women make the arduous journey to Masada. "We came like doves across the desert. In a time when there was nothing but death, we were grateful for anything and most grateful of all when we awoke to another day."

"The Dovekeepers" immerses readers in an ancient world, where nothing is easy -- not breathing or walking, not eating or sleeping, no part of daily life happens without chores and challenges associated with that task. Coupled with the difficulty of daily life is the persecution of the Jews. Revka recalls seeing her daughter's death: "The men fell upon Zara at the fire. I heard her voice the way you hear a bell, it rings and sounds above all other noises. I ran to her and one of the intruders threw me to the side, for to him I was no more than a dried locust ... I charged at them, screaming, but they were four and brutally strong ...While two of them held Zara, tearing at her garments, the other two made quick business of me." Such a spare description of such a horrid event makes it that much more real.

Hoffman's novels often rely on symbols and magic, mysticism and totems; "Dovekeepers" is no different. But she weaves these devices so intricately into the lives of Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah that readers pay less attention to the mystic elements and more to the events that tie these women to one another.

The men in this novel are not given the depth and breadth of the women, in part because the women live in such a misogynistic time and place. Yet there is respect for Revka's son-in-law, who is nearly unhinged with grief.

Josephus, a 1st-century historian, said that two women and five children survived the siege of the Roman armies. So it's clear that not all four of these remarkable women will live. But each of them will live on in the minds of readers.

-- Amanda St. Amand

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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