A new book by Alice Hoffman is always cause to sit up and take note, and The Dovekeepers does not disappoint. Five women dominate the story, four of them taking a turn as narrator of their personal journeys to Masada, the hilltop citadel that was home to the last Jewish holdouts against Roman annihilation in 70 CE.
Shirah, raised in Alexandria by a courtesan mother and known as the Witch of Moab, has two daughters – Aziza, who disguises herself as a man and fights in her brother’s place, and Nahara, who falls in love with an Essene and goes off to live a life of such austerity it pains others to watch. Together, they tend the dovecote at Masada, along with Yael, the daughter of a ruthless political assassin taking refuge there, and Revka, a baker’s wife, whose husband and daughter were murdered by the Romans. Their stories are unpeeled more than simply presented, revealing layers of personal griefs, forbidden loves, mind-numbing horrors, and private triumphs of the spirit.
The tension builds as drought and famine take their toll on the hilltop fortress. Hoffman’s atmospheric prose has the reader staggering under the brutal sun and incessant dusty wind, and when the first Roman scouts are followed by a legion intent on destroying this rebel community, the tension catches the reader by the throat and does not let go. The outcome is never in doubt – Josephus tells us that only two women and five children survived the mass suicide before the successful Roman assault on the citadel. This is the story of those who survived and those who did not, bringing the reader closer to the daily life of women in those desperate times than has been achieved by any other novel to date.