Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman is a favorite author of many, many readers and in reading about her previous books, it seems as if she has a varied and unusual repertoire in her many novels.  YA fiction, magical realism, lighter women's fiction, and, of course, historical fiction like this one.  The Dovekeepers has been lauded as a magnificent novel, called mesmerizing, and overwhelmingly praised far and wide.  The Women's National Book Association has named it one of their Great Group Reads for 2012's National Reading Group month.  Despite all the raves, I found myself struggling to pick this one back up after putting it down, trying to claw my way into a narrative that sadly only struck me as tedious and boring, desperately trying to care about characters who had suffered terribly and yet who were dull enough to evoke no sympathy.  This is not an easy thing to do, let me tell you.  Inch by inch and page by page, I pulled myself along and finally did achieve enough of a mild interest to continue with the story and finish the book without hating it and the time I spent between its covers.  But I, unlike so many others, cannot offer adjectives like haunting, beautiful, or mesmerizing about it.  Instead I can say adequate, fine, okay.
Set in 70 C.E. when the Jews were being butchered by the Romans, driven out of Jerusalem, their temple destroyed, massacred in their villages, and hiding out in small pockets to try and survive the slaughter, Hoffman has taken the historical fact of the destruction of Masada, a mountaintop stonghold that held out against the Romans for months before succumbing and used the ultimate survival of only two women and five children from there to craft her story.  Narrated in turn by four different women whose lives have been hard and filled with tragedy, the story of the fortress on the mountain and life within its walls is a complex one wiht many starting points and only one end.  Starting with Yael, whose mother died giving birth to her and to whose assassin father she therefore becomes anathema, having cost his beloved wife her life, the novel opens with the Siege of Jerusalem, Yael and her father's escape, wandering in the wilderness, and subsequent arrival in Masada.  She is put to work in the dovecotes with the other three women on whom the story centers. 
Revka next takes up the tale.  She is the wife of a baker who with her beautiful daughter, devout and scholarly son-in-law, and their two young boys flees their village after a terrible massacre.  But at an oasis during their travels, they are set upon by Roman deserters and Revka's daughter is raped and murdered under the gaze of her small sons, stricken mute by the horror.  When Revka and her surviving family finally make it to the sanctuary of Masada, the light has gone out of their world and they have been irrevocably changed. 
Third narrator Aziza is just coming into the first flush of young womanhood and still mourning the loss of the freedom she experienced living as a boy with her mother and her siblings' warrior father before arriving at Masada and having to take up her feminine role again.  She is an illegitimate child who rebels against the life that her mother has carefully charted for her, hungering to join in the battle against their Roman enemy but who cannot completely disavow her womanly nature.  Aziza's mother Shirah runs the dovecotes and is called a witch by many having been dedicated to the goddess Ashtoreth as a child.  She is both feared and sought out by the other inhabitants at Masada, her kinship to the leader keeping her safe from all but rumors, as she astutely interprets the signs, sees and knows the coming calamity.  The ending of the tale is never in doubt, based as it is on Josephus' historical account.
But the inevitablility of the ending was not my biggest problem with the novel.  Instead there were various other things that contributed to my disappointment.  To start, the book is overlong.  In fact, the journey Yael took to find Masada almost did me in and left me wishing it had done her in early on so the story could move forward.  This glacial pacing continued throughout the bulk of the novel, only changing at all in the very end.  Perhaps the effect was intended to replicate the long and tedious journeys that the characters took to reach Masada, in which case it was successful, but it's a dangerous potentially reader-alienating tactic if so.  Each of the characters narrates her own section, sharing her own tragic story before Masada and slowly advancing the plot through the months of resistence on the almost impregnable mountain but the voices of the different women are not well enough differentiated from each other.  While their pasts remain distinct, with interchangeable voices, their stories once they've all come to Masada blur together.  But as they each tell a section of the story, there's a lot of overlap and unnecessary repetition.  The tale of Masada as the lone holdout against the onslaught of the Romans is phenomenal and certainly begs for the story to be told but there's too much writing here and it overshadows the amazing historical bones that form the frame of the novel.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. This is such an excellent review. I've read nothing but raves of this one and currently I'm in the middle of Revka's story and I'm struggling! It moves so slow and it takes so long to feel any attachment for the characters. I think the actually history is the most interesting part, but like you said, it's being drowned with writing!

  2. Excellent review, Kristen. I have loved many of Hoffman's novels, and I am disappointed to read that the character development in this book, which is potentially a powerful story, isn't up to par. I've always thought that was this author's greatest strength.

  3. Great review! It's so easy to get carried away by the superlatives that others use, and fail to assess whether the book meets our own standards.

    I have read only one other Hoffman (Here on Earth) which was much shorter, I think, than this. The DoveKeepers has been on my wish list since it came out, but I think I'll move it down a little, and lower my expectations.



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