THE DOVEKEEPERS, by Alice Hoffman. Scribner, 504 pp., $27.99.
When an author immerses herself for years in a subject, the resulting book is sometimes laborious, stuffed, thickheaded. Sometimes it gets lighter, moving like water through the lives of its readers. "The Dovekeepers" is such a book.
When novelist Alice Hoffman first visited Masada, the site of an ancient mountaintop city in Israel, she was drawn to several artifacts: a bit of tartan fabric, some sandals, the hair of a young woman, an amulet and several skeletons. In this place 900 Jews committed mass suicide when the Roman Legion broke down the walls in 74 C.E.; only two women and five children survived, according to Josephus, a first-century Jewish Roman historian.
Over the five years following her visit, Hoffman put flesh on these artifacts; blew life into bits of stories and fragments of historical record. She built a city (walls, hives, underground passages), a landscape (dust, rocky ledges, cypress and desert). She imagined the many signs people used to interpret this landscape -- the religious rituals and myriad superstitions (misshapen clouds, strangely colored water) that infused their lives, explaining and creating fear. She created four women from this landscape and these fears: Yael, Shirah, Revka and Aziza. She followed their lives; put men in their paths, gave them children and grandchildren, gave them the gift and the curse of survival.
It is easy to describe the novel this way, as if a wind has blown through and animated the lives on the page. Yael, blamed for the death of her mother in childbirth, dreams that a lion is eaten whole by a snake: "I stood barefoot in my dream, on a stretch of rocky earth that was so blindingly white I couldn't open my eyes. I felt compassion for this wild beast, the king of the desert, for in my dreams he had given in to the snake without a fight. He had looked at me, beseeching me, staring into my eyes." Reading this passage, so rich in symbols, the reader is given a profound insight into Yael's character. How little it takes to pluck us from our modern lives, from our aloof skepticism, and send us scuttling after omens!
The novel is one long darkening sky -- each storm is worse than the last, and no pressure is relieved. Revka watches her precious daughter raped and tortured by Roman soldiers until her daughter begs Revka to kill her. Yael is tormented by guilt for stealing the husband of a gentle woman who dies with her children in the desert. Shirah, the witch of Moab and the powerful healer in Masada, must give her child to the covetous, barren wife of the city's leader. Aziza spends her childhood disguised as a boy, loses her sister, falls in love, learns magic from her mother.
Perhaps it is the historic core that gives "The Dovekeepers" its gravitas; perhaps it is the weight of superstition, the familiar need to understand clues and predict the future, even if all you have is a strange recurring dream you never fully understand. All clues seem to lead, at one time or another, to the veneration of life. The doves that all the women care for together are eaten or set free. Revka watches as they "turned the entire sky white. They rose and disappeared, then returned again, drawn back to their nests. . . . It was an honor to work with creatures who lived in the sky, so close to Adonai."