I was catching up on long overdue reading of BLACKBIRD HOUSE by Alice Hoffman when I was asked to read her latest novel, THE DOVEKEEPERS. I admit I was deep in the former, spellbound by the bewitching tale of a house, the people who populate it and its history, and I didn't want to put it down. But I had the opportunity to read another by Hoffman, after all, so BLACKBIRD HOUSE could wait…a bit.
"A novel lush in detail, evocative in memory, and authentic in its research and retelling"
THE DOVEKEEPERS is the story of four remarkable women who come to Masada, the Judean desert where 900 Jews held out for many months against Roman armies in 70 CE.
The formidable ladies are:
- Yael, the daughter of a ruthless assassin. Her mother dies in childbirth, and she bore the mark of her death forever: scarlet red hair and a complexion her own father referred to "as speckled with her own mother's blood." She was fated.
- Revka, the wife of the village baker, lost her husband to the Romans and then witnessed the brutal murder of her beautiful daughter, Zara. "I never once stopped to consider that what you are given can also be taken away," she said of her loss. Courageous, she takes her mute grandchildren to raise.
- Aziza, a warrior’s daughter, with no interest in the skills of girls her own age, but rather a skilled rider with a desire to stand beside men. Of her sister and other women, she says, "It is not with them I belong…but beside the warriors." She falls for a warrior who sees and admires her strengths and passions.
- Shirah, born in Alexandria, to a mother versed in ancient magic, who passes along her wisdom. In sharp contrast to Revka's statement, Shirah's mother shares this sage advice about her daughter's newly found powers in the Nile: "Here is the riddle of love: Everything it gives to you, it takes away."
Literature has rarely seen such a powerful tale of four unique women vested in love, shrouded in secrets, and urged on by boundless faith. "Nothing in the world is lasting; only our faith lives on," says Revka. This is a story about what it means to withstand the challenges that question our convictions and what it means to come out on the other end still standing, even if metaphorically.
Some might say that all that Alice Hoffman wrote prior to THE DOVEKEEPERS was just a build-up to a masterful crescendo, and that THIS is her greatest masterpiece. It IS a masterpiece, but it is also of a piece, of a type: a novel lush in detail, evocative in memory, and authentic in its research and retelling. Like her earlier works, she spares little in painting pictures of the beauty of feminism and feminine strength, in all its manifestations and human connections. Hoffman's body of work is full of just such stories --- lives intertwined and personal at the same time. Beautifully written, the ending of THE DOVEKEEPERS sent me right back to BLACKBIRD HOUSE for more of the same.
Reviewed by Roberta O’Hara on October 6, 2011