The Secret Chord: Geraldine Brooks

★★★½

The men of Yudah still tell stories of how their ancestors followed the prophet Moshe out of captivity in Mitzrayim to found new cities of their own. But their recent history has been less glorious. Troubled by Plishtim raiders from the Levantine coast, the people come to the prophet Shmuel begging him to anoint a king which, unwillingly, he does. The choice falls on Shauel, tall, handsome and charismatic, but Shauel and Shmuel soon diverge in their ambitions.

For Shauel, madness and doubt follow, while Shmuel seeks out another worthy to bear responsibility for the Land and to glorify the Name. He finds promise in the youngest son of Yishai of Beit Lehem: a handsome boy called David. This shepherd boy manages to humble the greatest champion of the Plishtim in battle and becomes beloved not only of Shauel but also of Shauel’s son Yonatan. And, one day, David will become king. Then, as Shauel had Shmuel, David will have his own prophet to advise and warn him: the young visionary Natan.

This is Natan’s story. It begins when he and David are both mature men, and Natan seeks to divert his king with the idea of writing a history. While deeds and great buildings testify to a man’s greatness for some years, Natan points out that deeds are forgotten; buildings worn down by time. If David wishes future generations to know him as he was, then he should consider writing down the story of his life. It’s an innovative idea and Natan finds himself entrusted with the task. First David sends him to speak to three people, each of whom has a different insight into David’s early life: Nizevet, David’s mother; David’s older brother Shammah; and David’s first wife, the embittered Mikhal. As their tales end, Natan takes up the thread of the story from his own memories, recalling his days as a boy-prophet in David’s camp of outlaws, where his fierce visions mapped out the path towards a crown and the creation of a legend.

Natan swiftly realises the difficulty of his task. History, after all, is very different from prophecy: ‘It is one thing to transmit the divine through a blasting storm of holy noise, another thing entirely to write a history forged from human voices, imperfect memories, self-interested accounts.‘ And David, of all people, elicits mixed feelings. For the people of Yudah, he is their golden, divinely-sanctioned leader: musically gifted, handsome and personable. But those who know him better see the contradictions in him. This devout man manipulates his way to where he wants to be, driven by impulse and lust as much as by sober reflection. As time passes, Natan’s history embraces not only David’s youthful victories but also his mature follies: his intense love for his sons, which blinds him to their faults; and his compulsive desire for women, which leads him to the greatest sacrilege – and penance – of his life. Natan must tell the tale of a man he both loves and disapproves of, torn between the duty of being an honest friend and that of acting as a mouthpiece for a vast, unpredictable power.

At first the book didn’t engage me all that much. It was interesting to see Brooks’s vision of David’s childhood and to revisit his duel against Goliath of Gath, followed quickly by his rise in Shaul’s favour and his friendship with Yonatan. However, there wasn’t much that went beyond interest to become truly gripping: it’s hard to maintain dramatic tension in a brisk retelling of the tale of David and Goliath, when we all know how it’s going to end. But then things changed. Natan’s story passed beyond the point of David’s coronation and suddenly I found myself in unfamiliar territory, among the subtle politics and strategies of his later years. Now I began to grow absorbed. Natan’s history reveals David as a shrewd, opportunistic dissembler, who can (metaphorically) embrace a man with one hand and stab him with the other. The former shepherd boy is always ready to lament his enemies’ deaths, but Natan becomes increasingly clear-sighted about his leader’s ambitions, and notes that these same deaths clear David’s own path to power. At one point, exasperated, Natan mutters to us: ‘I had seen him tear his garment so many times it was a sudden wonder to me that he had an intact tunic to lay upon his back‘.

This isn’t the wholesome boy-soldier of the children’s Bible I read when I was small. Brooks’s David is a more calculating creature, prepared to sacrifice virtually anyone or anything to secure his dynasty on the throne of a united Land. He is flawed, imperfect, driven by lusts of the flesh (as with the lovely Batsheva), and willing to overlook his sons’ own tendencies in this area (even when, like Amnon, they break the laws of common decency). But it’s precisely this imperfection that captivated me. And the story is given extra richness through Brooks’s choice of language. She gives the characters their Hebrew names, unfamiliar to me, which made it easy for me to read this as a historical novel rather than a Bible adaptation. For example, I’ve already mentioned Shaul, Yonatan, Mikhal; we also meet David’s clever wife Avigail; his proud son Avshalom; his general Yoav; and his bright, precocious younger son Shlomo, whose wisdom is clear even in childhood. And David’s great city, where he builds a palace and plans a mighty shrine to the Ark of the Covenant, is Ir David, although its older name Yebus sounds closer to the Jerusalem we call it now. When reading the author’s note, I wasn’t remotely surprised to learn that Brooks is Jewish. Her sensitive, profound interpretation of this story points to a sympathy that goes deeper than mere historical interest.

I haven’t read much historical fiction set in the times of the Old Testament (except The Red Tent, years ago) and indeed I tend to steer clear of anything that looks as if it has a tendency to be evangelical in any form. Brooks certainly nods to the power of faith and the intense presence of David’s god, in the form of the Name which speaks through Natan, but she doesn’t dominate the story with it. This is a human story – an almost Machiavellian tale of a man who claws his way up to the heights of power – told in the exotic rhythms of an ancient world. And, speaking of rhythm, there is music everywhere: in the laments and love-song David writes on his harp, and in the choirs he assembles for feasts and ceremonies. It is in the percussive notes of builders and the shofars which sound on the anointment of a king. And it is even expressed through Natan himself who, deprecatingly, refers to himself as nothing but ‘a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes‘.

This is a strangely beguiling piece of historical fiction, which works more of its magic the more you read. It was fascinating to put more meat on the bones of Biblical legend, and to get a better sense of the political landscape of the Middle East in this early period. Perhaps someone better versed than me in ancient history can tell me whether the Plishtim (the Philistines) are the ancestors of the Phoenicians? They seem to occupy the same part of the Levant coast. And there are tantalising glimpses of other neighbours too: Mitzrayim, of course, which we call Egypt; the Hittites; and the lords of the Two Rivers, which I assume must be ancient Mesopotamia. But most of all it was good to have a picture of David which drew together all the different threads of his legend as I know them – the boy with the sling; the lover of Bathsheba; the dancer before the Ark – into a sound and compelling narrative.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

6 thoughts on “The Secret Chord: Geraldine Brooks

  1. Helen says:

    We seem to have been drawn to the same books on Netgalley recently 🙂 I’m halfway through this one at the moment and enjoying it so far. My knowledge of the Old Testament is very limited, so I’m finding it both fascinating and quite challenging, especially with the unfamiliar Hebrew names!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Great minds… 😉 I suspect that we have several more similar ones lined up as well! I’m pleased to hear you’re enjoying it, and it’s rather nice to have those unusual names isn’t it? It shocked me out of my complacency about the story and made me really think about these figures as real people. At some point I really must go back and read the Old Testament again!

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