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Originally published October 9, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified October 10, 2011 at 10:28 AM

Book review

'The Dovekeepers': Alice Hoffman's novel of the siege of Masada

Novelist Alice Hoffman's beautiful, harrowing "The Dovekeepers" is based on the siege of Masada, where a band of Jews made a last stand after fleeing the Roman army. Hoffman reads Saturday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Alice Hoffman

The author of "The Dovekeepers" will read at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).
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'The Dovekeepers'

by Alice Hoffman

Scribner, 512 pp., $27

Only two women and five children survived the Roman army's attack on Masada, a mountaintop settlement in the desert where Jews fled after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Nine hundred others perished in a tragedy that is the climax and reason for Alice Hoffman's new historical novel, "The Dovekeepers." Hoffman spent five years writing a book that pays beautiful homage to the people of Masada, and particularly the women.

"Although some of the characters are based on historical figures, the stories of women have often gone unwritten, and The Dovekeepers is my attempt to imagine those stories," she writes in the acknowledgements.

Four strong women narrate the novel, each telling her own story but also representing part of life at Masada. Their tales mesh perfectly, spinning into one another and creating a complex and vibrant sense of life and death in the Judean wilderness.

"The Dovekeepers" begins with the narrative of Yael, a character who is at first unlikable. She has been rejected since birth by her father, who blames her for her mother's death in childbirth. Then Yael falls in love with an assassin, with whose family she and her father flee Jerusalem after the Romans crush a rebellion there. She lives in a cave above the group's camp and walks naked there, even having sex with her lover where his wife can see.

Yael depicts a perilous journey through the desert to the haven of Masada, an old fortress of King Herod's that has stores of food and sits atop an enormous rock plateau protected by treacherous cliffs. There the Jews dig in. Yael becomes one of the women who keep doves, for their eggs and to create fertilizer for the settlement's fields. All of the narrators work in the dovecote.

Revka came to Masada with her son-in-law, who was traumatized by the Romans' rape and murder of his wife in the wilderness. His young sons are mute from having witnessed it, and Revka cares for them while their father becomes one of the settlement's fiercest warriors.

She feels forsaken by God, and her tale is full of portent, both in her telling of life before Masada and as she describes the Romans scouting the mountain.

Aziza is a daughter in thrall to both her parents.

"No wonder men were transfixed by her and angels came to speak to her," Aziza says of her mother, who knows magic and is thought to be a witch. She also loves and admires the father she barely knows, and who is one of the book's historical characters.

Aziza's mother, Shirah, narrates the Romans' siege of Masada, and her story, laced with deep love and ancient magic, is the most powerful of all.

By the book's end, all four characters are richly rounded, and Yael is as beloved as the others. In retrospect, her habit of cutting lines into her flesh to mark the grueling days in the desert — and probably her other actions there — also reminded her that she was alive.

"The Dovekeepers" is a stunningly crafted work about a tragic and heroic time. It also showcases Hoffman's immense gift for telling stories about women, magic and complex relationships. Perhaps "The Dovekeepers" is the masterpiece she has been working toward all along.

Melissa Allison is a Seattle Times business reporter: mallison@seattletimes.com

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