Phew! I finally finished this mammoth of a novel. It wasn’t as long as A Little Life, but it was definitely comparable in terms of page length as well as depth. Overall, this was a spectacular read, filled with vivid description, interesting story lines, and memorable characters. Although sometimes I found it challenging to get back into, once I was in, it was hard to break away.
The Dovekeepers is set in Ancient Israel, specifically on the cliff of Masada, which is in the Judaean desert. The novel is split into four main parts and one final part, each of which are told from the perspectives of four women. Each of these women ended up at Masada to seek refuge from the Roman army. Although their journeys to Masada were all different, they are all interconnected through family ties, history, and a strong sisterhood.
This novel is largely based on historical events–which you can read about briefly on the Wikipedia page (like I did, after I had finished the novel). [Note: I don’t consider the following spoilers because they are historical events and are listed in the description of the book. However, if you want to go into the novel with a blank slate, read no further.] The cliff of Masada is a real place where a group of Jews sought refuge after fleeing from Jerusalem due to the Roman army’s invasion. The Roman army found Masada and built a great ramp in order to infiltrate their community. Although there was a great wall that surrounded Masada, the Romans ended up breaching the walls of the fortress. However, before this actually happened, it is said that over 900 Jews in Masada set fire to everything in the community and killed themselves and each other in order to remain free from Roman capture. According to an ancient historian, only two women and five children survived the mass self-sacrifice. Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers gives a story to those who were said to have survived.
As I previously mentioned, the novel is told in five parts, four of which are central to the novel’s plot, while the fifth sort of acts like an afterword. Each part is crucial and adds so much to the novel. You’re not getting the same story told four different ways, as when Hoffman switched perspectives, time continued (with of course some back-tracking so readers get a glimpse of each woman’s history). I loved that the fifth part or the afterword is cyclical, as it really ties the whole story together. I’ll just say that I was afraid the novel would end with the fourth part, but my inner “I have to know the whole story” was extremely satisfied by the fifth part. Part four was the best (in my opinion) as it focused on my favorite character and went more in-depth about the natural sorcery conducted by Shirah.
Since the book was so long and held so much detail, I felt–as a reader–that I was also on the journey with these women. Hoffman’s descriptions were clear and vivid without using overly flowery language. She achieved this by using short, statement-based sentences to tell the story. I also loved the combination of natural elements with a war-based climate; it seemed to portray the women’s roles within Masada in a strong and feminine light. One of my favorite passages was an early birthing scene, which used both war-like and natural imagery to construct the setting and tone:
“Shirah gathered the dove droppings and set a fire using them as peat. She fanned the flame until there was a plume of smoke. The scent that emanated was bitter but also familiar. It seemed the doves had followed us to this place; we could hear their wings beating, fast as our breathing, fast as the birth must become if mother and child were to survive. After the laboring woman drank the bitter rue, retching as she did, Shirah had us take her by either arm. We forced her to stand above the fire. The air burned with heat, and we were all slick with sweat. I grabbed off my shawl, feeling I might suffocate. I could hardly see for all the ash and sparks. The world was made of salt and smoke, and there was no choice but to go forward.”
To read or not to read?
Read this novel if you liked The Red Tent or if you are looking for a historical fiction read with strong female characters–you will not be disappointed.