In The Secret Chord, her latest novel, Geraldine Brooks (author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, March, among other international bestsellers), has set herself the daunting challenge of portraying one of the most heroic and yet morally troubling figures in the entire corpus of Jewish literature and indeed world literature as a whole.
The entire arc of King David’s career, from boy shepherd to raging decrepitude, is told through the prophet Natan (mentioned in just a few enticing places in scripture, his shadowy presence leaves a great deal for Brooks to fill in).
Brooks adds further layers to his sometimes melancholy perspective through employing the ingenious (slyly anachronistic) device of the interviews he conducts with others, presumably at the behest of the king himself who wishes a full and unsparing chronicle of his life and kingship to be a legacy.
The result is a shifting, multifaceted tapestry that captures both the enormity of David’s crimes as well as his generosity and largeness of heart. And here and there Brooks cunningly sneaks in a potent line or two from scripture to great effect.
Above all, The Secret Chord succeeds as a richly accomplished character study of all the people who love, hate and fear David. The most haunting of these are the women’s voices (Batsheva, Mikhal, Avigail, among others).
Yet it must be said that with lots and lots of palace intrigue, shifting alliances, reconciliations, and betrayals that are somehow suspenseful no matter how well one knows the original, this novel is also a genuine page-turner.
It is hard to single out just one example of how Brooks’ electrifying prose enlivens the original text, but an ebullient moment in David’s career demonstrates her flair. Here is her supple rendering of 2 Samuel 6: 14-15, the king’s lascivious rejoicing at bringing the Ark to Jerusalem:
“David leaped ahead, whirling in the air. The light linen of his tunic flew aside, revealing the long line of muscle that ran from hip to thigh. He had recently turned forty, but his limbs remained lean and strong, traced over with the fine white puckers of scar tissue from old wounds. He did not care that he exposed himself. He was far away, lost in the dance. There was no regard for kingly dignity, for manly self-mastery. This was naked joy, uncontained, abandoned. He had let go of self. He was a bright flare, a blur of stamping, springing, whirling animal energy.”
One of the most memorable choices Brooks makes is to portray the relationship between David and Saul’s son, Yonatan, as unabashedly erotic as it is soulful, a decision that will likely resonate with many readers and even hints at an underlying cause for David’s ephemeral relations with the women of the story.
There are also a few delightfully inventive bits such as Natan’s gentle, Merlin-like tutelage of the young Shlomo (Solomon). If Brooks adheres closely to the contours of scripture in most other instances (unlike the midrashic reaches of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent for example), she always finds delightful ways to deepen and enliven the old story as her prophet transcribes it: “as sour as the gall ink in which I wrote.”
Nor does she shy from the story’s most terrible episodes, such as the horrifying rape of Tamar by her half-brother. And as one who often teaches 1 and 2 Samuel, the primary source of the David story, and who generally approaches historical novels set in ancient Israel with significant trepidation (there are so many opportunities to err when it comes to rendering the natural and human landscapes), I was gratified by how masterfully the author seems to grasp the social, economic and military realities of the Second Iron Age.
Brooks has said that she immersed herself in the antiquities of the Davidian period in Jerusalem as well as the Judean desert landscape – and that effort shines forth with brilliant results on every page. She renders the horrific brutality of biblical battles as viscerally as those in the Iliad and that unsparing realism seems apt.
Yet perhaps her greatest achievement is the intricate approach she takes to the lives of the women in David’s life. I asked her about this in a recent email exchange and her profound reflection on gender and the roles of women in Middle Eastern society, past and present, is nearly as compelling as her fictional world. Drawing from her years as a veteran reporter, she observes:
“I thought about women I’d reported on, women such as Queen Noor in Jordan, Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife in Iran. As I thought about Batsheva at David’s deathbed, maneuvering to get her young son Solomon on the throne, I thought of Queen Noor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, as King Hussein lay ill with cancer. Somehow, it was Noor’s young son who was named crown prince, second in line to King Abdullah, ahead of many older brothers by Hussein’s former wives.
“And then there was Mikhal, who became David’s first wife. Her father, King Shaul, was ambivalent about the marriage. That reminded me of a strange afternoon when I was invited to tea by Ayatollah Khomeini’s widow. She told me that day how she’d managed to marry a guy who was then an impoverished religious scholar with no prospects.
“Khadijeh was just a girl, fully veiled in her chador, when she took in the tea tray and managed to catch a glimpse of her would-be suitor, the young Ruhollah Khomeini. She liked that glimpse, but her father said no, he wasn’t good enough. So, that night, she had a dream. In the morning, she told her father that she’d seen Ruhollah meeting with all the great prophets of Islam.
“It’s probable that 99.9 percent of Iranians don’t know Khomeini’s wife’s first name, and yet she was immensely powerful in shaping the Iranian revolution. So, there were plenty of lessons about how you wield private power in a society that publicly barely acknowledges you.”