It’s just words on a page, but those words are so powerful, so entrancing, so visceral that they seemingly affected every one of my senses. I felt the searing heat of the desert, tasted the gritty sand in my mouth, smelled the lilies, heard the doves cooing, and saw the mountaintop palace-fortress of Masada that was built on a rock cliff impossibly high in the air. This book is a literary masterpiece that will haunt me for some time to come.
Written by Alice Hoffman, this is a novel based on the siege of Masada. In 70CE, nine hundred Jewish rebels occupied the mountain fortress of Masada in Judea that had been built by King Herod. They were holding out against the Romans, who were killing Jews en masse all over the region. The ancient historian Josephus writes that as the Romans prepared to attack Masada, the Jews entrenched there committed mass suicide with only two women and five children surviving. From this spare bit of information, Hoffman has woven a majestic tale of four women of different ages and backgrounds, all of whom care for the doves toiling daily in the dovecotes. Their stories, focused largely on their religious faith and mystical superstitions, the danger and joy of sex, and the brutality and violence of the constant battles of war that surround them, combine to tell the big story of life and death on Masada from 70CE to 73CE: • Yael, the daughter of a cold-blooded assassin, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father has blamed her for this her entire life.
• Revka, the beloved wife of a baker who was brutally murdered by the Romans in their village. Fleeing into the desert from this destruction, she witnesses the horrific rape and murder of her daughter.
• Aziza, the daughter of a warrior, who carries deep secrets about her true identity.
• Shirah, a wise woman who is labeled a witch for her seemingly magical potions and powers.
The book’s splendor is in the tone and voice of the writing, which combine to be so powerful that mere words transport the reader to this ancient time and place.
This is a story of survival and the strength of women who continually suffer in a brutal and terrifying time. This is a story of feminism and friendship. This is a story of love and pain. This is historical fiction at its finest.