Alice Hoffman's 'The Dovekeepers': a magical history tour
"The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman.
Alice Hoffman has "breathed literary life into the dust of history."
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In the first century A.D., Rome has slaughtered the people of Jerusalem and destroyed much of Judea. The last Jewish holdout, the fortress community of Masada, perches midway between earth and sky, life and death. Four women with differing backgrounds and temperaments find refuge there, caring for the doves who provide fertilizer for the almond orchards.
In "The Dovekeepers," rather than describe the fall of Judea from a military or political point of view, Alice Hoffman focuses her narrative lens tightly on the hopes, dreams and disappointments of these four women.
Recurring images echo through her lyrical prose: flames, blood, lions, water, bread, wind, white and red desert rocks, the pale blue sky, threads of various kinds. Visible threads form knots on a prayer shawl, tying men to their God. In-visible threads connect human beings to each other and to the world they inhabit. Ms. Hoffman shows that even in a desolate, hard environment, what matters most is the sense of belonging, formed from bonds of loyalty, affection and identity.
Her characters struggle with powerful, conflicting emotional and physical forces: desire and brutality, murder and birth, sin and redemption, self-hatred and self-forgiveness, faith and the loss of faith, the effort to maintain dignity in the face of overwhelming cruelty.
The rich and varied religion of first-century Judea, peopled with zealots and Essenes, sicarrii assassins, a remnant of the Ashtoreth goddess cult, infuses their stark world with magic. The dead are not quite dead, blood stains last forever, children lose their ability to speak, a man's hair turns white overnight, a woman tames wild creatures with a glance, a parched landscape blossoms. On those rare occasions when rain falls, it may be salt-filled or multicolored -- or, most magically of all, it may be ordinary rain, sustainer of life.
The Romans described the Judeans as crazed zealots. "The Dovekeeepers" depicts them as deeply caring, passionate seekers of truth. Of the two portraits, Ms. Hoffman's is the more nuanced, complex and convincing.
The Essenes and some other sects of ancient Judea believed that at the end of time, the virtuous would be bodily resurrected. The jury is still out on this question, but in the meantime Alice Hoffman has effected the next best thing. She has breathed literary life into the dust of history and resurrected four simple dovekeepers, beautiful and moving women in a stunningly detailed world. At the same time, she has helped us understand and appreciate the universe their people bequeathed to us.
"The Dovekeepers" is a brilliant historical novel to be cherished and savored again and again.
First Published December 18, 2011 12:00 am