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Review: The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks
Viking, 2015. 302 pp. $28

The stories are so well known they’re common metaphors. When one person, athletic team, or military force faces a much larger, stronger opponent, we talk of David confronting Goliath. If we hear of adultery that leads to murder, the case evokes David and Bathsheba. Everyone knows, too, how the first king of Israel was a celebrated warrior, political leader, poet, musician, and judge, yet how a prophet’s rebuke made him repent while at the height of his power.

The Tel Dan stele, one piece of archeological evidence for David's kingdom (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The Tel Dan stele, one piece of archeological evidence for David’s kingdom (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Or maybe not, if you read this magnificent, powerful, intensely gripping novel, which reimagines the biblical hero in his glory and fatal flaws. Brooks shows David’s daring, passion, devotion, ability to listen, grasp of military and political strategy, his occasional efforts to restrain the blood lust of the age, and his unmatched singing voice, beautiful verse, and cries of rage or grief. In other words, she explores why people followed, loved, and believed in him, and how he forged a kingdom out of warring tribes, but also why his vanity, arrogance, sexual appetites, and blindness to misdeeds (his own and his favorites’) caused so much misery and jeopardized his entire enterprise. Perhaps most important, the bloodshed and cruelty that David calls necessary to create a strong central government and, thereby, curtail unnecessary bloodshed and cruelty, keeps circling through the narrative, just as it has circled throughout human history.

How does Brooks manage to convey all this while sustaining the tension of a story written thousands of years ago? On first reading, I see several ways. First, though David is the object of everyone’s attention, he’s not the protagonist; Natan, his conscience, is. (Throughout, Brooks uses Hebrew names for people and places.) Like all prophets, Natan often wishes he didn’t have his gift, which keeps him from living like other men and evokes a mixture of fear, awe, disbelief, and misunderstanding.

However, it also saves his life. When David, then a rebel outlaw, puts a village to the sword for having refused to share food with his soldiers, the ten-year-old Natan watches his father die. Then it’s Natan’s turn, whereupon he falls into a fit and pronounces the fateful prophecy of great things. Naturally, the soldiers think it’s a performance, if brilliantly done; they don’t believe what they can’t see or touch. But David brings the fledgling seer into his household, where he eventually becomes a trusted adviser, and you get the idea that it’s not just David’s ego that has guided him but his talent for seeing beyond surfaces.

Even so, for Natan, his calling cuts more than one way. First, intense physical and emotional anguish always presage and accompany his prophetic utterances, so that he’s completely outside himself and can’t hear his own words. If it happens among other people, he can only find out what he’s said after he recovers, though meanwhile, he sees how his listeners react. That separation puts him at a disadvantage. Secondly, though his status protects him, when Natan speaks to the king and the generals in his own guise, he’s risking his neck, especially if they think he’s criticizing them. It’s a delicate balance for Natan, who must resist the temptation to pretend that certain words come from God when they don’t, and he can be sure that these powerful men will ask. Further, contrary to what they assume, he doesn’t see how things will come to be, only what will be. Consequently, his presence at their councils creates tension, as do his divided feelings, and much rides on what he chooses to say or keep to himself.

The narrative of course grows much flesh on the bones of an oft-told story, but Brooks never lets her inventiveness betray her characters. For instance, how she shows David winning his epic combat with a slingshot, or how she explains why Batsheva was bathing on her roof, make perfect sense for the people involved. You know that these things will happen, but you don’t know how, or how people will view them, and that adds drama as well.

Then there’s the prose, though which Brooks re-creates an ancient landscape and ways of thought until you can practically touch them. Take this example, when Natan leaves his burning, corpse-ridden village forever, his father yet unburied, and his mother refuses to say goodbye:

I felt, in her shunning, the first of many turnings-away. It was hard for a child to feel that ebbing love, to sense an estrangement that I could do nothing to gainsay. For my part, I still loved her as much as I had the moment before my mouth opened and the words poured out of me. But like the leper when the first lesion darkens and pits his skin, I was marked in her eyes, blemished, unlovable.

As for quibbles, I do wish Brooks had scrapped the prologue; I dislike them, and they feel gimmicky. The narrative switches time perspectives, leaving me in the dust on occasion, though I caught up soon enough. Finally, when the five-year-old Shlomo (Solomon) speaks words that he’d later set down in Ecclesiastes, that feels a bit precious, much as I love their wisdom. He’s a prodigy, sure, but it’s actually more meaningful that Brooks stresses David’s vanity, a subtle contrast with the philosophy that his son would later express.

This is the fourth novel of Brooks’s I’ve read (see my review of Year of Wonders, January 5). But I like this one the best of any, and I wouldn’t be surprised if The Secret Chord, like March, earned her a Pulitzer Prize.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.