Simon & Schuster, 2011

Inspired by the the lost stories of two women and five children who survived an ancient massacre, Alice Hoffman spent five years writing The Dovekeepers.

She doesn’t feel that she chose to tell the story; she felt driven to tell it.

“It was a gift from my great-great grandmothers, the women of ancient Israel who first spoke to me when I visited the mountain fortress of Masada.”

(I won’t repeat more of her words on this haunting process: her letter to the reader is here.)

Before you read further, you might want to peek at the gallery of images of this fortress and its environs.

They are truly stunning. I discovered them halfway through reading this novel and I could understand, then, what I had heard about the author’s process of discovery.

What I had already understood, though, was why Toni Morrison’s praise was so robust.

“Beautiful, harrowing, a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.”

(I won’t repeat more of the praise, either: lots of that here.)

The resonance of these narratives is truly remarkable. Not having any fore-knowledge of the history, geography, or culture of these characters, I think it’s astonishing that the author pulled me across two thousand years and all my ignorance into these stories.

The Dovekeepers opens with the story of Yael, who is The Assassin’s Daughter.

It’s the summer of 70 C.E. and, even without reading the book jacket, you know it’s not going to be a happy tale when it starts with talk of assassinations.

And, sure enough, there are atrocities, horrors, and countless losses.

“Such things happened often enough; a dove would arise through the narrow opening in the roof and be struck in midair. Then there would be feathers floating down, and if you narrowed your eyes, a thin rain of blood.”

And all of this is before the massacre.

And Yael is not an easy character to cozy up to. Well, that suits. She is struggling to survive. That has changed her, or, as some would levy, has made her more of what she already was. Her portion of the narrative is filled with death and betrayal.

The prose, however, is beautifully styled, and the rich evocation of the time and place keep the ever-squirmy reader engaged.

Alice Hoffman

There is not a lot of straight exposition, just enough to keep the reader informed and intrigued. For instance:

“Her tunic had been flung open, and I was shocked to see a swirl of red tattoos on her shoulders, a practice that was forbidden to our people. Those who had been marked so were said to belong to the kedeshah, holy women who were loyal to religious groups with practices so secret and controversial they had been outlawed long before Jerusalem fell.”

Secret and controversial: well, of course you want to know more about that kind of thing.

But it’s the common as well as the uncommon that sustains the reader’s interest. The domestic details of life/survival create a fuller picture, and draw the reader further into the narrative.

“No baker’s bread tasted the same as another’s , that was what my husband told me, for a baker’s life went into each loaf. Some baked with piety, some with prayers, some with the intent to create more than mere sustenance, raising their craft into an art, entranced by the beauty of the flame of the tannur and by the art of the challah.”

My immersion in the novel was slow (for the reasons described above), but once the dovekeepers entered the narrative, I felt more engaged, and that developed throughout the novel’s other three segments.

Partly I think that’s due to my interest in the dovekeeping itself (and the symbolic importance of the responsibility), but also because the world-building was constantly evolving, and because additional perspectives on the characters emerge and create a stronger sense of community.

“They rose and disappeared, then returned again, drawn back to their nests. They were devoted to their mates. Therefore, couples were never allowed to fly together; the loyalty of one brought it back to its partner time and time again, despite the lure of freedom.”

The ways in which the lives of the dovekeepers intersect mirrors the ways in which stories like this — so distant in terms of time and place, stories of our ancestors — intersect with contemporary readers.

These women have the same concerns that women two thousand years later and on the other side of the globe have. The talk of weaving, the drawing of water, the rituals and ceremonies: they are essential details, but the quintessential concerns are truly universal.

The novel’s other segments include The Baker’s Daughter, The Warrior’s Beloved Spring, and The Witch of Moab (and another short one besides). But I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself. Drawing the lines — across the narratives and across the years — is one of the primary pleasures of this novel.

Have you read this one, or any other of Alice Hoffman’s works? (This was my first, but it won’t be my last.)