I hadn’t read anything by Geraldine Brooks until now, but I had heard so much praise for her books that I knew I would have to try one of them eventually. I was pleased to have an opportunity to read her latest novel, The Secret Chord, even though the subject didn’t initially sound very appealing to me. It tells the story of King David from the Old Testament, and as my knowledge of Biblical kings is almost non-existent, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this book!
As the novel opens, David has decided that he wants the story of his life written down so that people will know what he was like, not just as a king but as a man. His friend and prophet, Natan, is given the task of writing the account, but as there’s a limit to how much Natan really knows about David, it’s necessary for him to seek the help of other people who can offer insights into David’s life and character. And so Natan sets out to speak to David’s family, including several of his wives, recording their thoughts and their memories, before taking up the story himself and remembering the dramatic circumstances of his own first encounter with the king.
Natan slowly pieces together the information he is given and a portrait of David begins to emerge: a portrait of a complex, flawed and fascinating human being. A former shepherd boy who has risen from his humble origins to become King of Israel, David’s personality is a mass of contradictions. He’s a beloved king, an accomplished musician and writer of Psalms, and loves his sons so much that he’s blind to their faults; on the other hand, he can be heartless and cruel, particularly where his first wife Mikhal is concerned, or when he sends his soldier Uriah to be killed in battle because he is lusting after Uriah’s wife, Batsheva.
As I’ve already said, before starting to read this novel I knew almost nothing about David (apart from the story of David and Goliath, which is only one small episode in David’s life) so I was able to learn a lot from The Secret Chord. Although the novel is narrated by Natan, who is himself an interesting character with his prophecies and uncontrollable visions of the future, we also hear from a wide range of other characters. Through the eyes of David’s mother, Nizevet, his brother, Shammah, and his wives Mikhal, Avigail and Batsheva, we gain a better understanding of who David really is, as well as getting to know the men and women who played significant roles in his life. Not all of this is told in strictly chronological order, but I can understand why the author chose to structure the story the way she does.
Another choice Geraldine Brooks makes is to use the Hebrew names for characters and places. I was completely unfamiliar with these and sometimes it took me a while to realise exactly who or what I was reading about. Instead of Samuel, for example, we have Shmuel; Solomon becomes Shlomo and Joab becomes Yoav, while the Philistines are the Plishtim and Bethlehem is Beit Lethem. In a way, I liked this because it helped me to think of this as an original work of historical fiction rather than a re-write of the Bible stories, but it also made the book more challenging to read than it might otherwise have been. Once I settled into the style of writing and got used to the unusual names, however, I started to really enjoy The Secret Chord. I’m sure I’ll be reading more by Geraldine Brooks.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review.