This is a book that I found simply stays with me for numerous reasons. But I think, perhaps, the most powerful aspect is just that — the power of skillful writing throughout the story. I have had an on again off again opinion of Hoffman’s books. Many of them I have either had a hard time getting in to — or I have struggled to relate to the characters. I get really frustrated with an author at times — and I realize this is simply unfair. The author has an artistic vision — and they must stay true to that insight and story. But, one person’s vision does not always work for someone else. That is the struggle I have had with Hoffman’s writing. Somehow, I just struggle with the style overall — which makes it difficult to get into a story, with the staying power to get through to the end. Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I picked this one up. In the end — it was the subject and title that drew me in. I have always loved history — and historical fiction is certainly one of my preferred genres. Stories that are set in the early Hebraic faith, and the history and challenges faced among the Jew’s have always captivated me. So — Hoffman had her work cut out for her — at least with me, as a reader. I had a great deal of expectations in relation to what I wanted to find in this book. Simply put — Hoffman delivered in spades!
The women of this book are amazing in the stories they have to tell. Each of them have beautiful lives to share and those lives are as unique as they are powerful. Set in a time of great upheaval in the land of Israel — the Jewish people were being hunted, enslaved and annihilated. The Romans were going to great extremes to bring the Jews to heal — and the resulting devastation was truly horrific. In the midst of this upheaval, each of these characters — Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah — make up the foundation of this book. Their stories manifest the challenges, joys and heartaches that accompanied life, as women in ancient Israel. Their struggle to find and hold onto faith in the midst of rebellion and chaos really give a sense of realism to this story. Hoffman’s research adds depth and dimension — allowing the reader to see into the minds and hearts of these four intriguing women. Each of them manifests the struggles of being considered inferior in their families and among society. Each of them gives insight into how women learned to live in this society, where they were denied so much — while at the same time so much was expected. Each woman was the product of heartbreak and tragedy, and it is these back stories that allow the women to go from being characters — to being individuals with depth and dimension.
The tragedies that forced these women into the troubled lives they live — also drove them and the remains of their families into a tragic appointment with destiny. They ultimately find themselves in the last bastion of Judaism – Masada – where they will ultimately meet a troubling, mysterious end. While history records the events leading up to the tragedy of the mass suicides of Masada — the questions of why continue to haunt the historical and archaeological records. This story dares to ask not only why — but also to delve into the last, desperate motivations that would ultimately lead to the final collapse of the Jewish state, through the ignominy of death at their own hands, as opposed to the alternative — death or enslavement at the hands of their oppressors. The feeling that Hoffman captures in the Masada stronghold forces the reader to step out of themselves and consider the struggle of the last choices facing this handful of people.
Hoffman demonstrates a real aptitude for incorporating thought and emotion into the lives of her characters. The myriad motivations that continuously trouble the characters are both moving and powerful. And yet — the story is simple, in that the ending is already known. But it is this knowledge that lends a sense of fatalistic desperation in not only the lives of the characters — but also in the mind and heart of the reader. The desperation is, at times oppressive it is so powerfully developed. But for all of that — the reader just can’t seem to walk away.
This book makes for a great read. It is captivating in the questions it explores, while relying on the history, to give depth and emotional tension to the whole experience. Hoffman demonstrates a strong mastery of the use of language, and demonstrates how eloquent an author can be, when combining the drama of history with a well accomplished gift for language. This is one that I would recommend to those who love historical fiction, drama and history. It opens the door on what might have been, while reflecting on the struggles of a once condemned people.