The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman


I must be the only person who could manage to confuse the Bible with the Cambridge Latin Course.  I have been to Masada, where this book’s set; but I remembered doing something about it at school, and initially thought that the Siege of Masada must be described in the Bible.  It isn’t.  It is, however, described in Stage 29 of the Cambridge Latin Course (the boring bit with Salvius and Haterius), as I belatedly realised.  Then I thought I knew the “Wings of a Dove” psalm, mentioned in the fourth and final section of the book … until I realised that I was actually thinking of the Madness song.  I’ve an idea that the psalm’s mentioned in a Noel Streatfeild book, though – doesn’t Robin Robinson sing it?

Oh well.  The idea of writing about four women inside the fortress of Masada in AD 70-73 (or AD 74, seeing as most sources now set the date a year later than older ones did), their journeys there after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, and their lives there until the end of the Roman siege, was a very interesting one, and I really enjoyed the book.  I believe that there was a TV adaptation of it in the US, although it apparently wasn’t very good.  It’s written in quite a strange way, though … like Philippa Gregory, Alice Hoffman got a bit carried away with the idea of feminine magic, and I ended up feeling as if I were reading a cross between the Bible, The Red Tent, The Da Vinci Code, The Chronicles of Narnia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The White Princess.  Quite a strange combination.

The book goes with the traditional story, that those inside the fortress committed suicide en masse rather than be captured by the Romans.  Historians aren’t convinced that that’s true, but it’s the version of events that most people will know.   A slave from Wales turns up in the middle of things, which sounded rather unlikely, but apparently archaeologists have found artefacts at Masada which show that a Welsh conscripted legionnaire was there.  On a different note, whilst I’m trying not to let the coronavirus colour everything I read, it was interesting that (in a book published in 2011), people were very concerned about covering their faces whilst treating a sick person, and washing their hands afterwards, in case a demon jumped from the sick person to them; and they also grabbed a load of stuff from the supply stores when the siege began in earnest.

It’s in four parts, about four women whose lives become intertwined as they work in the dovecotes.

Yael is the daughter and sister of Sicarii assassins, the branch of the Zealots who fought against the Romans, and perhaps the most interesting character even if she’s not very appealing.  Revka is a woman whose daughter died after being raped by Roman soldiers, who also attacked her, and whose husband was also killed by the Romans, and who’s caring for her traumatised grandsons.  Aziza is the illegitimate daughter of one of the Sicarii leaders, initially brought up as a boy to protect her from unwanted male attention, but then revealing herself as a woman and becoming involved with first Yael’s brother and then Revka’s widowed son-in-law.  Shirah “the witch of Moab” is Aziza’s mother, and it later turns out that she was also Yael’s nursemaid.  Apart from Revka, they all get involved with men they shouldn’t.

The descriptions of the environment – Jerusalem, the lands they pass through on their way to Masada, and Masada itself, are absolutely superb.  So are the descriptions of their daily life, and their work in the dovecotes, and the explanations of the different sects and their different practices.  However, some of the “magic” stuff does go a bit OTT.  The idea of goddess-worship and feminine magic, and their being suppressed by the religious authorities, which also played a big part in The Da Vinci Code, is fascinating up to a point, but talking about mysterious magical books of spells which Noah and or Moses had just sounded a lot more Bedknobs and Broomsticks than the Bible, and just went too far.  The symbolism went overboard as well.

That aside, it was really a very good read.  The passage of time came across very well – all the talk about the different months and what was associated with each one.  I’m familiar with the Hebrew term “Rosh Chodesh”, the first day of the month, but I hadn’t realised that, according to the Bible, the start of each month was supposed to be a minor holiday.  The interpretation of it here is that the coming of the new moon represents light triumphing over darkness, and reminds people that nothing stays the same and things move on, which definitely had overtones of what the Queen said in her Easter speech.  And I now gather (thank you, Wikipedia) that there was a later tradition that women didn’t work on the first day of each month.  I like that idea 😉 .

So – in summary, I’d have liked a bit more history and bit less mystery/magic, but it was still a very good book.  Thank you to BookBub and Kindle Daily Deals – you’re being very helpful as lockdown goes on!  If anyone’s read this, thanks for reading, and stay safe x.

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