The Dovekeepers, By Alice Hoffman

Magical world of mothers and daughters
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The Independent Culture

Alice Hoffman is probably best known for marrying the magical with the real, reinventing the allegorical as she portrays girls with flame-red hair, or ice in their hearts, green-fingered ghosts and angels that hover near.

She is never wistful or whimsical, though; the "dovekeepers" in her latest novel are literally that – women who look after doves, in the late king Herod's palace at Masada. It is AD70, and they are flesh-and-blood women who lived through a real siege perpetrated by the Romans against this Jewish stronghold in Judea.

Hoffman has based her tale on the historian Josephus's account of the siege, during which the entire stronghold of 900 people committed suicide, rather than submit to the Romans. Only two women and five children survived. In her version, four women take up the narrative: first motherless Yael, mistress of the married "lion man" Ben Simon, who comes to Masada after her brother finds her with her father wandering in the desert; then the grandmother Revka, whose daughter was raped by Roman soldiers and whose grandsons cannot speak after witnessing the event; the young woman Aziza, who was raised to be a boy and a warrior; and finally, Aziza's mother, Shirah, the "witch", who knows her potions and spells and is mistress to the great warrior, Ben Ya'ir.

It is a story full of contemporary resonances, from the fleeing of families away from the fighting, the building of a giant wall round the Jewish fortress, and the atrocities committed by both sides during fighting. It is primarily a woman's story, though, in which childbirth and love play the largest parts, and mothers and daughters populate the landscape, even when those mothers are absent. When Hoffman first began publishing, her world – in which women organised themselves against patriarchal laws with secret codes and signs, ancient spells and rites – was less familiar. Since then, this alternative view of female power has become more commonplace, almost a cliché.

Whether Hoffman is conscious of that, or whether she is responding to tougher times, she effectively sets both Yael (who sees off a leopard by herself) and Aziza (who goes into the heart of the battle) against the feminine power of Shirah. These dove-keepers are not a happy alliance, cohesive in their womanly tasks. They possess different histories, but are forced to confront a common enemy. But this is still a feminised version of this moment in history, and Hoffmann has made it a real tour de force.

The marriage of the magical with the real may have less impact the further back in time one goes, for we expect that combination from an era too dark for us to see clearly. But after Yael has become pregnant with Ben Simon's son, his dead wife, Sia, haunts her dreams. Shirah instructs her to eat a vial of herbs: "What you swallow is the taste of what you've done. Be prepared for that. Only you know how bitter it will be." A better comment on war would be hard to find.