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'The Secret Chord' Slowly Achieves Resonance

"The Secret Chord" by Geraldine Brooks (Viking)

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks’s “The Secret Chord” bills itself as a bloodstained reimagining of the life of King David. But it initially raises concerns with its awkward beginning. Brooks appears determined to disprove an assumption that good history and a good novel cannot meet in a single book. And so, in the midst of otherwise beautifully crafted prose, in which historical facts and details are melded seamlessly into a vivid, compelling narrative, Brooks inserts transliterations from Hebrew. From her preliminary declaration that she uses Tanakh transliterations like “Shaul, Shmuel and Shlomo, for example, rather than the perhaps more familiar Saul, Samuel, and Solomon” onward, an unstylish anxiety prevails. This implied request to treat the book with the seriousness owed to a work backed by research distracts in the beginning from its literary qualities. “The Secret Chord” picks up steam, however, to become an excellent novel that elegantly handles its historical context.

Transliterations aside, Brooks’s presentation of historical material is spectacularly accessible. Consider this sentence: “I liked to walk in the garden at that still hour, listening to the low buzz of the bees, enjoying the sharp scent of the dry, fallen cedar needles and the wild zatar that fingered its way between the cracks of the paving stones.” Even without knowing that “zatar” refers to a Middle Eastern herb commonly used in Biblical times but now generally simulated in cooking with cheaper spice blends, the vividity of the image is undiminished. On every page, Brooks’s writing around the potentially difficult historical details is so strong that her essential narrative and imagery are not swallowed up by their context.

Brooks also solves another problem of genre: how to make the leap from religious text to novel. References to the Judeo-Christian God are intertwined with every source for the life of David. He thus presents quite a challenge to the novel writer. A novel should ideally allow for the role of choice in its protagonists’ lives, and a major character who is both omnipotent and omniscient calls the importance of such choices into question. For novelists, God has a tendency to steal the show, and the most obvious solution is to excise God entirely from the story. A “reimagining” of the Israelites as nonreligious or of their prophets as fraudulent is lazy, but would certainly resolve the issue. Brooks has the good taste not to attempt such violence towards her source material. She postpones, however, any mention of God until a reference to “the ark of the Name” a few dozen pages into the book. Enough has happened without Him to show that “The Secret Chord” will be primarily a story of human choices; the mandates of God appear only through prophets and at a distance. While the book hardly departs from orthodoxy from that point on, nonetheless by now the independence of the narrative from God has already been established.

Despite her emphasis on human choices, however, Brooks does not dive directly into the psyche of King David. Instead she filters his story through the perspective of his court prophet, Nathan. Nathan, more commonly referred to as Natan, narrates his relationship with David from his outlaw days to his rule over all Israel—another intervening court prophet, Gad, is presumably ignored for purposes of clarity—and fills in the holes in his own memory with the testimony of other characters. While this account is mostly resentful, leading to what appears on first glance to be an unfriendly portrayal of the king, in considering Brooks’s novelistic task it is also an engaging narrative device. In depictions of David’s other relationships, Brooks continues to approach her novel’s main questions from a similarly innovative individualistic angle but stays faithful enough to the original story. Few scholars believe Brooks’s assertion that David and his friend Jonathan—“Yonatan”—were homosexual lovers, for example, but some do. In presenting this as well as many such relationships, the aspect of history that her narrative is obliged to foreground, Brooks deserves credit for not writing pure fiction. Her interpretations of some of those relationships may not be exactly mainstream, but she keeps well within historical possibility.

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Brooks makes it clear that David’s wives are in many ways to be pitied, dwells on the famous betrayal of Uriah, and shows the long trail of bodies of varying innocence that David leaves behind him. But a reading of “The Secret Chord” as unsympathetic to David would be inadequate. Violence, Brooks makes it clear, was endemic to the age in which King David emerged. While hardly an attempt at psychology-based justification for David’s crimes, the book does provide a clear causal link between a violent world and violent men, and this link lends emotional weight to David’s quest to unite and safeguard Israel. David’s legacy of a peaceful kingdom for Solomon to administer is shown to be the triumph of a fundamentally good man. What Brooks has managed is to make the well known story of this royal succession into a moment of great import, a feat that is the epitome of artistry in historical writing. She has written a skillfully nuanced portrayal of David, who emerges with both the magnificence and the understandable flaws of a great man.

—J. Thomas Westbrook can be reached at thomas.westbrook@thecrimson.com.

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