Alice Hoffman may be the most uneven writer in America. A trip through her enormous body of work — for adults and young people — is a jarring ride, from the loveliness of “Illumination Night” to the schlockiness of “The River King.” Hang on tight and you’ll swerve from the quiet power of her short stories in “Local Girls” to the groaning hokiness of “The Ice Queen.” In bestseller after bestseller, she explores women’s subjects and feminist themes, especially ancient and modern expressions of witchcraft. Sometimes, the results are practically magic; sometimes, they’re practically laughable.
But nothing she’s written would prepare you for the gravitas of her new book, an immersive historical novel about Masada during the Roman siege in the 1st century. “The Dovekeepers” is an enormously ambitious, multi-part story, richly decorated with the details of life 2,000 years ago. What’s more, as Anita Diamant showed so popularly with “The Red Tent,” the world of ancient Judaism provides fertile ground for exploring the challenges of women’s lives, and, fortunately, this time Hoffman treats her favorite issues without throwing up much of the fairy dust that too often clogs her work.
The tragedy at Masada has echoed down the ages, subjected to various political and inspirational uses, since it was first described by Josephus, the only contemporary source. According to his “Jewish War,” after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a group of Jews known as the Zealots took refuge in Herod’s old cliff-lined fortress. The Romans, unwilling to tolerate this holdout of rebels and assassins, laid siege, built a containment wall and then constructed an enormous ramp. When they finally smashed their way through the walls, they found that almost a thousand men, women and children were already dead, a preemptive move to keep themselves from being killed or enslaved by the Romans.
That act of defiance still serves as a touchstone for the Israeli army, but its horrific finale makes a daunting barricade for a fiction writer to scale. The battle between Governor Silva and Eleazar ben Ya’ir — invincible military might on one side and inflexible religious commitment on the other — lays waste to our modern interest in subtlety, irony and conflicted human characters. Hoffman doesn’t ignore the larger-than-life leaders and their deadly clash, but her creative path into Masada is from the ground up: not through its generals and warriors, but through its mothers, daughters and wives. The result is a high-minded feminist story of unassailable seriousness. Whether that makes it appealing for the many fans of Hoffman’s previous novels remains to be seen.
“The Dovekeepers” is divided into four primary sections, each narrated by a different woman who describes her life before arriving at this sealed community of violent rebels high on a plateau:
●Yael is the long-suffering daughter of a Sicarii assassin, who never forgives her for his wife’s death in childbirth. “I was not afraid of cruelty,” she tells us. “I knew it was inside me, as it was inside the leopard who must catch his supper to survive.”
●Revka is the grandmother of two young boys who went mute when they saw their mother murdered by Roman soldiers. “Just as creation began with words so, too, did our world come apart in silence,” she says. “None of us spoke. The boys because they could not, my son-in-law because he would not, myself because there were no words worth speaking aloud.”
●Shirah is a medicine woman from Alexandria who has a complex past relationship with the Sicarii leader at Masada. Like any good feminist heroine, she lives according to her own sexual mores, brings a frightened young woman through a difficult labor, and is eventually accused of witchcraft by people envious and frightened of her power.
●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.
By Alice Hoffman
Scribner. 504 pp. $27.99