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The dovekeepers [book club kit]
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New York Times Review
Alice Hoffman's novel reimagines the first-century siege, through the eyes of women. YOU could call it a hoopla sandwich. On the back cover, a blurb from a famous, widely respected author describing the novel as "a major contribution to 21st-century literature." On the jacket flap, a publisher's summary proclaiming this book to be the writer's "masterpiece." Yet in between, instead of a gripping work of fiction that lives up to this praise, is a long novel full of middling descriptions, hackneyed characters and histrionic plot twists. The novel is Alice Hoffman's latest book, "The Dovekeepers," which attempts to retell the story of the Jewish resistance during the Roman siege of Masada in the first century. The only account we have of the actual event is "The Jewish War," written around that time by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who became a Roman citizen. Josephus gives an account of his own experiences, first fighting for the Jewish struggle and then as an emissary for the Roman Empire. Some scholars have faulted Josephus' account, accusing him of fictional embroidery and sensationalism. Archaeological findings suggest that he may have fabricated, for literary effect, the mass suicide that supposedly ended the siege, and he does seem to pay excessive attention to the barbarous use of weaponry on both sides. Hoffman's fictional rendering also relies on amplification, yet it fails to illuminate and enrich our understanding of historical events. "The Dovekeepers" details the interactions of six women: Shirah, the Witch of Moab, and her two daughters, Aziza and Nahara; Yael, the daughter of a ruthless political assassin; Revka, whose husband has been killed and daughter brutalized by the Romans; and Channa, the reclusive, barren wife of a character based on the real-life leader of the Jewish rebels. Five of these women have worked tending to Masada's dovecotes, forming a small community within the larger one. Different characters supposedly narrate the novel's various sections, yet all these voices consistently wallow in the same sort of hyperbole and forced metaphor. Yael's lover kisses her "everywhere" and rivets her attention "like bee stings." Revka sees the doves turning "the entire sky white" and claims that "not a brick would remain" of the town she fled before coming to Masada. Wind goes "through" Yael until she is left in "emptiness." And Shirah supposedly rips her clothes until her hands bleed. Desire for Jerusalem is "a fire that could not be quenched." Revka says the desert, apparently vacant, is actually full, "much like water in a cup," and later that water is clear "like an open window." The abundance of overstatement and clumsy description minimizes the impact of actual dramatic events. When the women take lovers, steal babies, cast spells, their actions feel contrived. Although, toward the end of the novel, one of the characters explains the uniformity of expression by declaring that she is passing on the stories of those who did not survive, this seems equally unconvincing. In her acknowledgments, Hoffman reminds us that she is neither a historian nor a religious scholar and declares that the novel is meant to "give voice" to the women who participated in the Jewish struggle, whose stories "have often gone unwritten." I have no doubt that "The Dovekeepers" was conceived as a worthy project, but good research and good intentions don't necessarily yield good novels. In the resistance to the Romans, Hoffman's female characters form a small community of their own. Sarah Fay has written for The Paris Review, Time, The Believer and other publications.
Library Journal Review
Only two women and five children of more than 900 people survived the Roman siege of Masada in the year 73 C.E. after the suicide pact of the Jewish rebels there, according to the historian Josephus. In this well-researched novel, Hoffman (The Red Garden) vividly brings this tragedy to life, as four women who take care of the dovecote at the fortress tell their stories. Seeking refuge at Masada after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple are Yael, the daughter and sister of Sicarii, professional assassins, and Revka, who with her two mute grandsons has just witnessed the horrific murder of the boys' mother in the desert. Shirah and her warrior daughter Aziza come from Moab. Considered a healer and a witch, Shirah still worships the ancient goddess Ashtoreth. Hoffman finds poetry and beauty, dignity and honor, even in those perilous, blood-soaked times. VERDICT This powerful and gripping novel about survival and endurance will stay with you for a long time. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/11.]-Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Almost too dense to bear, Hoffman's 23rd novel is brimming with doom, based on the story of the mass suicide of Jewish Zealots at Masada as recorded by the historian Josephus. Set in the first century, the blood-soaked saga unfolds from the perspectives of four courageous Jewish women whose lives converge in the dovecotes of the rebel desert stronghold. Yael is an assassin's daughter who flees Jerusalem as it falls to the Romans, arriving pregnant with the child of her father's married colleague. Revka, her husband murdered by the Romans, comes with her two grandsons, rendered mute after witnessing their mother's disembowelment by Roman soldiers. Shirah, from Alexandria, possibly a witch, brings her beautiful daughter Aziza, who having learned the ways of men among the tribesmen of Moab, uses her warrior's skills to fight in this last stand against the Roman legions. Suspicious of one another early on, the women, each with her own secrets and talents, powerful lovers and magical spells, soon develop a loyalty so fierce that they are willing to sacrifice everything for each other and for the children they are entrusted with. Hoffman (Here on Earth) can tell a tale and knows about creating compassionate characters, but the leaden archaic prose style she uses tells more than it shows. Massive descriptive paragraphs slow the action, until, by the end, the reader is simply worn out. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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