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Book Review: The Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers

by Alice Hoffman

Scribner, 2011

So many novelists find their literary roads leading to Rome; it should come as no surprise that Alice Hoffman’s latest work is set in AD 70, in and around the famous Jewish mountaintop fortress of Masada. Hoffman winds the strands of her story toward the survivors of the Roman siege – Josephus tells us two women and five children were found alive among all the defenders dead by their own hand. Hoffman has always concerned her fiction with women’s lives and women’s stories, so it’s perhaps understandable that such a detail would draw her.

Still, a Roman-era historical novel from an author like Hoffman feels a bit odd. This is a novelist whose work has always either minimized or disregarded the factual grounding readers expect in a historical novel. The story of The Dovekeepers is the story of four women, Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah, each a bundle of carefully non-overlapping stereotypes, each brought to their fate on Masada by dutifully narrated back-stories. That the women resonate so accurately with the many facets of 21st century feminism is far less a sign of universal sisterhood and far more a sign that our author might be in a bit over her head. A further sign of this is the New International Standard slurry of quasi-archaic narrative seep underfoot:

In the rainy season, when there were no caravans, the men journeyed back to other villages, other wives. Your father and his kinsmen never stayed in one place but instead rolled down their tents and set off across the land, leaving their families on the Iron Moutnain, visiting other wives and children far from our camp. They rode so far their shadows could hardly be seen by humankind. We stayed behind with the goats and the white-fleeced sheep. There were hundreds in the flock, all adding to your father’s wealth, and they needed tending. The acacia trees were abloom with yellow flowers, and the fields of grass were so tall we could disappear and never be seen as we ran across the meadow. At night the bats flew together in one dark cloud, dropping down to the trees to drink the juice of the figs. The air was mild, and the rain turned the air the same shade of blue as the cloaks your people wore.

There’s rodomontade here but also glints of beauty, and this, at least, is old familiar Hoffman ground. I first became aware of her with 1994’s Second Nature and was puzzled by her prose. I went to the Boston Public Library and read the dozen or so previous novels, and I’ve read the dozen or so novels that followed, and my puzzlement has only grown. The canniness with which Hoffman has managed to avoid being categorized in the reading public’s imagination as the exact equivalent of Danielle Steel should not be underestimated; her many fans would be offended by the comparison, yet the two are virtually indistinguishable – both can manage to captivate your attention while possessing barely any skills at writing English. Just as Steel’s characters think and speak in baggage-claim-convenient tag-snippets, so Hoffman’s think and speak in a soft-focus patois of book-club-convenient wispy aphorisms. Both set their stories in recognizable real-world settings (including log cabins, ski resorts, the Titanic, and a fortress built by Herod the Great), but both them transform and trivialize those settings by ruthlessly subordinating them to theme. The result is the literary equivalent of lemon meringue pie: plenty of satisfaction, but almost no substance.

Which is what makes The Dovekeepers so odd. Conditioned perhaps by Ernest K. Gann’s gritty 1971 success The Antagonists, readers expect a Masada novel to be factual, hob-nailed, almost didactic – certainly masculine, which must be part of Hoffman’s point. Despite the fact that one of her women dresses as a man and trains and fights with men, the only masculine character of any note in this book is Ben Ya’ir, the leader of Masada’s Jews – and even in his limited space, he’s one of the book’s most compelling characters, which raises the essential Hoffman question: would this have been a better novel if it had been less lofty?

Lofty or not, it’s often a very muddled book, like almost all of Hoffman’s work. There are passages of real narrative control, there’s dialogue of genuine tensile snap, and then there are passages like this:

The Romans had captured him outside the Temple when he was young and unmarried. He was tall and well muscled, with strong arms, exactly the sort of man they wanted. They were searching for gladiators and had therefore devised a test. They locked ten men in a room with a lion. Whoever survived would be sent to Rome. The first nine were killed, but when it came to this man who lay beside me, the lion had cut him once across his face, then fallen at his feet. The creature had died a sudden death, collapsing all at once, splayed out upon the tiled floor. Perhaps the lion had been wounded in his other encounters, but Ben Simon announced to the soldiers that he had slain his foe with one look. It was such a strange sight that the Romans, now puzzled and confused, took to discussing the possible causes of this odd circumstance. It was then Ben Simon managed to escape, though his wound still bled.

I’ve read it four times now, and it still doesn’t make an inch of sense. The test for potential gladiators involves killing nine-tenths of the candidates? The lion dies of a heart attack? Ben Simon claims he killed the lion with a look, even though he’s covered in blood? The Romans are so busy staring at Ben Simon in confusion that he’s able to escape?

The Dovekeepers stands out even from Hoffmans’ dozens of other books for its obvious ambition – a multi-voice narrative weighted with history and hints of the supernatural is hardly her most familiar formula. Underneath the formal experimentation, however, there’s the expected murky fantasia and non-threatening empowerment fog. Such things – badges of honor in today’s contemporary fiction scene – feel more than ever like impediments here. I’m hoping her future roads lead firmly away from Rome.