In The Secret Chord (Viking, October 6, 2015), a splendid re-imagining of King David’s life, Geraldine Brooks harmonically blends historical record with her gift for breathing life into people and events that have shaped our world.
Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2005 novel March which takes place in America during the Civil War. The Silent Chord draws its inspiration from events occurring in Israel during the Second Iron Age, the time when David ruled. Beyond his slaying of Goliath, his talent as a harpist and his achingly beautiful psalms, few are familiar with David’s full story.
But Brooks, who says she was inspired to write The Secret Chord after her 9-year-old son began playing the harp, paints a dynamic portrait of David as a warrior, father, lover and king as well as a conflicted man who had a very complicated relationship with his God and his family.
Brooks tells this revelatory tale through the people who feared and loved him. It’s an ancient story in which Brooks employs many Hebraic pronunciations of names and places—Bethlehem is Beit Lethem and Saul is Shaul, for example—yet this novel has all the energy and freshness of a newly minted tale.
When we first see David in The Secret Chord, we view his magnificence through the eyes of the prophet Natan. David’s arms are “encircled by polished copper cuffs. His hair, the same color as the copper, was undressed, and fell in a dense mane against the fine black wool of his mantle.”
David is 50 and worries his manhood is waning. Always a fierce warrior, his generals now prefer him to stay in his palace, a safe distance from the battlefields. The aging David asks Natan, the novel’s primary narrator, to write his history. It’s one that Natan will carefully recount so David “will live in earth as he did in life: a man who dwelt in the searing glare of the divine, but who sweated and stank, rutted without restraint, butchered the innocent, betrayed those most loyal to him” but who also “loved hugely” and “built a nation, made music that pleased heaven and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unborn.”
Much of David’s life—as melodramatic as that of any Shakespearan king—is told through David’s first wife Mikhal, the daughter of King Shaul (Saul); David’s older brother Shammah, and his mother Nizevet. Through them we learn of David’s formative years, how at age 6 his unloving father Yishai (Jesse) banished him to the hills where he lived alone tending sheep; how of all Yishai’s sons David was chosen by Shaul’s prophet Shmuel (Samuel) to assume Shaul’s throne, and how his brothers despised and bullied him. It’s a Game of Thrones story laced with equal amounts of suspense and rivalry.
Brooks fills every page with rich details about the complicated David, the man who people called “the sweet singer of Israel,” whose voice “could engender awe, as a high wind howling dangerously through mighty branches, or bring delight, as an unexpected trill of sweet birdsong.” Her painterly prose describes how he played the harp and “the notes he drew from it (were) a bright thread forming a splendid pattern.”
But it is his lust for life that informs the melody of this novel. Even as David ages, Natan observes that “The golden shimmer of his youth had been tempered like worked metal in his adult years so that even now, at fifty, he gleamed. Years had brought only distinction to a beauty that had proved irresistible to men and women alike.”
The novel, then, is at its most compelling in its imagining of David’s relationships with his eight wives, especially Mikhal whose brother Jonatan is portrayed as the love of David’s life. David’s relationship with Jonatan (Jonathan), Brooks writes, was rooted in “a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule.” When they kissed, Natan observes, “there was violence in it, and power, like lightening reaching from sky to earth.”
The Secret Chord’s battle scenes match the gruesome details seen in Starz’ epically grizzly Spartacus. Brooks uses the power of words, not computer-generated imagery, to evoke the horror. “Corpses hacked apart, severed heads kicked from man to man till the faces were mashed like ground meat;” David walking over the corpses his “boots red to the calf.”
But no story thread is more captivating than the one Brooks recounts about David and Batsheva, the beautiful wife of Uriah. David rapes her then conspires to have Uriah killed. It’s a heinous crime and David’s punishment takes many forms. His first son with Batsheva dies, his daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon, who later is killed by his brother Avshalom. It’s a scandalous tale you can’t stop reading.
Brooks is much like Natan, David’s biographer. “I came to understand that there was a great power in scratches upon skin or clay, from which one man might know the mind of another, even though distance or years divided them,“ Natan writes of the story he’s recording on scrolls made from animal skins. Similarly, Brooks uses modern storytelling formats—eBooks and paper—to make the dead live again.