Sunday, February 12, 2012

Books I Love: The Dovekeepers

I’ve read enough Alice Hoffman to believe that she is one of the world’s best writers about women. Her plots may be fantastical but even as her female characters behave in magical and mystical ways their deepest mystery lies in their female essence.

Imagine then, taking a subject as masculine and obscure as the  decimation of the Jews at the siege of Masada- the destruction, in 72 C.E., of the final Jewish settlement in Judea (now Israel) by the Romans. Jewish rebels, wildly outnumbered by Roman legions, taking over what was once the greatest palace of Herod on a mountaintop deemed to be impregnable. There is only one account of the siege and it is written, not surprisingly, by a Roman and a man, Josephus. To take this subject and time and look at it solely from the perspective of four women is no small feat. The fact that Hoffman can bring it to life so powerfully is even more astonishing.

At a time when women were considered the weaker sex, to the point of being so unclean that they could not touch men or their weapons, Hoffman creates four women who are stronger, wiser and more ferocious in their desire to save their loved ones than any male they encounter. In some cases it is their very invisibility within their culture that allows them to accomplish what it is said they cannot. Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah come to Masada from points and lives as far away as Alexandria but once there their destinies become as finely interwoven as the fabrics they produce for prayer shawls.

Before you shy away- this is not a feminist manifesto. Hoffman is too fine a writer to reduce characters to a stereotype or present them only partially drawn. Each character in The Dovekeepers is fully fleshed, male or female, in all their strength and weakness. In the same way, Hoffman has always had the ability to translate flights of fancy into wonderfully readable fiction but this book goes well beyond that. Her imagination still gives life to her characters but the details of their lives are the result of five years of extensive research. This combination of facts with Hoffman’s use of language, soft for flowers, cold and cutting for steel, pulls aside the curtain and allows the reader to step into another world.  

"They say the truest beauty is in the harshest land and that God can be found there by those with open eyes. But my eyes were closed against the shifting winds that can blind a person in an instant. Breathing itself was a miracle when the storms came whirling across the earth. The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard. It roars when it speaks, it lies to you and convinces you, it steals from you and leaves you without a single word of comfort. Comfort cannot exist in such a place."

This is prose that not only moves a story but lingers, nuanced and layered. You cannot skim a book like this nor would you want to. In fact, if you’re a skimmer- one of those readers in search of snappy dialogue and little thought- stay far away from The Dovekeepers. If you read to be swept away, to be completely immersed in another time and place (even already knowing the outcome) then this book is like the fabled manna from Heaven. Read slowly, savor each sentence. Give yourself over to these women and their stories.

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