●And finally, Aziza, one of Shirah’s daughters, is a rebel who poses as a man and struggles to take her young brother’s place in battle. “Although I was not in irons,” she says, “I was a slave to the truth of who I’d been born.”
At 500 pages, “The Dovekeepers” is a relatively long novel, and the need to start again with each new narrator, with her own exposition, taxes the story’s momentum until the various threads ultimately wind together. Yael, Revka, Shirah and Aziza come to know one another by working in the dovecote, which supplies crucial fertilizer to the compound’s gardens. Life in the close quarters of the fortress is stressful, heavily dependent on the precarious crops, and constantly imperiled by internal dissent or Roman attack. We learn a lot about the Jews’ precise rules for cleaning, cooking, lovemaking and healing, delivered in a self-consciously educational manner, e.g., “Shirah was a practitioner of keshaphim, initiated into the secrets of magic,” Yael explains. “Our people believed that any item with a sun and a moon upon it must be taken to the Salt Sea and thrown into the water.”
Despite the distance of 2,000 years, these poor Jewish women are all surprisingly well-educated liberals with little interest in religion, unless it’s appropriately hip and pagan. One might expect in a community willing to die for its beliefs that we’d see more religious fervency, but these narrators possess a friendly sense of agnosticism and tolerance. In fact, for all Hoffman’s commendable attention to physical details, her heroines’ values seem closer to modern-day New Yorkers’ than ancient Jews’: sexual freedom, gender equality, emancipation. I am yenta, hear me roar!
The characters’ odd contemporaneity sometimes breaks through in jarring ways, as when Shirah says of their violent leader, “He was open in a way that made people respond to him on a deep, essential level.” That sounds more like Bill Clinton than Eleazar ben Ya’ir. And would a 1st-century Nordic slave, even a really hunky, sensitive Nordic slave, say, “You’re not like them, Yael, you’re not like anyone”?
Many of the incidents these women relate — family conflicts, cruel assaults, romantic trysts, difficult births, jealous conflicts, magical incantations — are dramatic and engaging, but their sheer number eventually feels relentless, a tiresome delay of the bloodbath we know is coming. And it’s especially disappointing how often moments of violent action take place offstage, or when the narrators are unconscious, or before they arrive. For heroines, these four women are too often cast as their own Greek chorus: reviewing, summarizing, filling us in.
A more wearing problem stems from the fact that these four intriguingly diverse narrators speak in a fairly similar, narrow range, holed up between stoic lamentation and portentous declaration: “This was what it meant to be human,” one of them says, “to know that time moved and all things changed. I realized then that I needed to forgo silence, which had been my sword and my shield. That was the price I must pay. What protected me once, I now must cast away. It was my gift, but no more.” In a moment of particular emotional clarity, this kind of grand pronouncement could be moving, even rousing, but over the course of hundreds of pages, such tonal monotony loses its power and sounds wooden. Around Page 410, when the Roman soldiers appeared on the horizon, some evil little part of me sighed, “Finally. . . .”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
Alice Hoffman will be at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda on Wednesday at 7 p.m. She will be at the Howard County Library East Columbia Branch on Thursday at 7 p.m.