Review of The Secret Chord
The Secret Chord: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks.(Viking, 303 pp. $27.95)
Geraldine Brooks’s imaginative take on the story of David, which she rolls out with a novelist’s keen sense of narrative, character, setting and theme, is an engaging way to learn or refresh one’s sense of biblical history. Revisiting this legendary shepherd boy from the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles who strategically won fame and power vanquishing enemies and bringing together warring tribes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author coaxes out a flesh-and-blood man in all his dazzling contradictions. Her fascinating story gives credence to Brooks’s belief that David was a real figure who lived around 1,000 B.C.E.
The author filters David through the eyes of the prophet Natan (Brooks uses Hebrew personal and place names as transliterated in The Tanakh), himself a complex character, whose point of view directs the narrative. David emerges as a courageous, clever and creative leader but also as a proud yet flawed warrior-hero. He could commit murderous acts, ignore his failures as a husband (he had eight wives), be blind as a father and deeply cherish a homoerotic relationship with Shaul’s son, Yonatan. He could also exercise jealous regard of his nephew Yoav, his loyal and competent general, and of the hapless Uriah, husband of Batsheva. The result is a sensual tale full of blood and vengeance told in prose that is poetic at its best as well as convincing as conversational dialogue.
Brooks also deftly affects a slightly semiformal sentence structure, including historical words that convey a sense of the political, military and societal culture of the Second Iron Age (it is unfortunate, therefore, that every now and then, modern obscenities creep in, along with a modern address: “hey, man”).
The intriguing title alludes to the mystery of David’s genius with song. As Natan says, he has heard “even travelers from the court of the pharaoh…say that in voice and in musicianship, David has no peer.”
David slew Natan’s father, yet the prophet serves his king wisely and well, though he is surprised that David assigned him the task of speaking with key people who can uncover truths about him. David knows that false accusations and wild elaborations swirl regarding his brothers, wives, nephews and children, though none doubt that God ordained his ascendancy to the throne of mad King Shaul, and Natan will ordain David’s youngest son, Shlomo (the word means peace), the child of the unfairly maligned Batsheva, to succeed him. Natan stands up to his king and stands by him, but he foresees how David will be “scalded by the consequences of his choices.”
As with her earlier novel People of the Book (Penguin), Brooks has read innumerable studies and analyses and then trusted her storytelling skills.