I first became entranced with Alice Hoffman’s lyrical and imaginative style with her novel The Marriage of Opposites, and continued to enjoy her rich prose with The Dovekeepers. She has a particular gift for creating magical yet realistic worlds, whether set in the early 1800’s in the Caribbean, or, as in this book, in first century Judea. Both novels feature Jewish communities under stress, either from within, or due to external forces – or both. And there was no greater force than the might of the Roman Empire in Ancient Times.

This novel is based on the tragic events that took place at Masada – a seemingly impregnable fortress – whither a group of nine hundred Zealot Jews and their families fled from Jerusalem, and where they famously held out against the Roman armies for months. As a lover of history, I particularly enjoy Hoffman’s fictional evocations of historical events.

Four remarkable women are the central characters, each with her own story of suffering and burdens of grief. They work together taking care of the doves at Masada, closely guarding their secrets and gradually becoming drawn together. Although devout in their Jewish faith, the women’s prayers are interwoven with pagan-like incantations, magical charms, and a strong belief in the meaning and significance of dreams. It is still a world of superstition, the power of evil forces, and witchery. But these gifts of covert sorcery gave women power, the only weapon at their disposal in a severely patriarchal era. Women then were no more than servants and child-bearers, but they evolved a secret arsenal – some of which are still used to this day – in a different form.

Be prepared for some violent scenes in this otherwise beautifully haunting novel, and the relentless suffering of the protagonists – sometimes for too long – before the Roman legions finally appear through the dusty desert. 500 + pages of relentless suffering tempted me to pages, especially when we all know the catastrophic outcome of the Masada episode in Middle-Eastern history.

Like Puccini’s doomed heroines in his operas, Hoffman specialises in women pitted against insuperable odds – and demonstrates ably how they overcome them. Such tales of courage and fortitude are always inspiring to women readers.

 

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