The Secret Chord: A Novel
King David comes alive in a deeply emotional “novel” that tackles the man and the myth in an ambitious sweep of history and lore. An enigmatic figure—important to people of many faiths—King David is one of those characters whose life and story, old as they are, have modern day meaning.
But the first question a reader will confront in The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks is--do you believe what happens in stories from the Bible are “true”?
The novel demands a certain suspension of disbelief since the battles that animated King David’s career are extraordinary, legendary, and at times almost impossible to imagine.
Geraldine Brooks, author of four novels including the Pulitzer Prize-winning March and the international bestsellers Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and Year of Wonders, delves into David’s life, with her usual depth and breadth and a splash of imaginative detail and originality.
Like David’s legendary story, this tale is not for the faint of heart. It is a sage saga replete with battle wounds, emotional and physical scars, tragedy, triumph and all the faults and foibles of mythological and real heroes. As the title suggests, there are secret chords, hidden musical signs, and a rhythm that can rock the reader on one page, and lull them to sleep on another.
Beyond plot and story arc, Brooks writes with elegance and a clarity of purpose that helps the reader navigate the complex story surrounding King David’s rise to fame. This story of David is told through the eyes of Natan, a prophet and futurist who David comes to rely upon for counsel and judgment. Inspired by biblical references to the lost book of Nathan, Brooks uses Natan as the biographer of King David. It is through the decision by David to let Natan document his life story, that we are invited into his past.
Natan sets about writing the history of the King through journalistic interviews with those who knew David best—Mikhal, David’s first wife, Shammah, one of David’s older brothers, and Nizevet bat Adael, a woman who was part of David’s household.
In the beginning, Brooks establishes David’s qualifications as a musician through his harp playing. “It was as if the harp were a loom, the notes he drew from it a bright thread forming a glorious pattern . . . He said that the music—its order and precision—helped him find the patterns in things—the way through the confusion of events and opinions to direction, to order, and beyond, to inspiration.”
Age is also established. At the beginning of the story, David is 50, which was considered “old” at the time. As the story unfolds, Brooks takes us back in time to the young David of eight years whose loss of family at the hands of enemies sets him up for the legendary role he played in uniting feuding sects. It is through memories that Natan takes on the task of setting down “a full and true accounting” of David’s life, knowing that myth and story-telling can be flawed and that “the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip.”
As the plot unfolds, David is reared to be loyal, trusting, and deeply suspicious of enemies at the same time. He becomes battle-ready early in life, watching others kill and be killed. He learns the skills of both fighting and listening. And so when the “Plishim” raid his village and capture the holy ark, carrying an ancient and revered scripture, David is called upon to lead an army of fighters to retrieve it and the territory upon which it was taken. “All glory seemed gone from Israel with the ark fallen to our enemies and housed, as we heard, in their heathen temple beside their idol, the grain god Dagon, as if it were just any other trophy of war.”
If there is a theme to David’s life it is that he sees his actions, good or bad, as necessary. While many may interpret that refrain—“whatever it takes. What was necessary,” as a meek justification for killing and betraying others, it is the central task of David to confront enemies in the name of what he believes to be a righteous cause: freedom. (It is hard not to think of today’s maxim that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” but David becomes a sympathetic figure, thrust onto the historical stage at a time when leadership required sacrifice—even of character.) “David, then, was an outlaw. A wanted man, a traitor.”
Natan assures the reader that David acts as he does in the face of tough situations. “Our tribes were a frayed and flimsy alliance, fragmented by enmity, led by a king whose own anointing prophet, Shmuel, had disavowed him, whose behavior was erratic, if not mad.” The battles of King David, so the narrator suggests, had to be fought for the sake of others. “We were squeezed between the Sea People on the coast, Pharaoh’s armies to the southwest, and the might people of the Two Rivers on the east. Our chief and nearest enemy, the Sea People or Plishtim, as they called themselves, controlled access to iron so completely that we were obliged to use wooden boards for our ploughshares.” And if that is not enough to convince the reader of David’s good intentions, albeit tough tactics, Natan adds: “We could not pass freely even in the territory we claimed, that scant strip from Dan to Beersheva.”
As a good journalist, Natan probes all sides of David—his generosity, his ill-temper, his will, and his flaws. At one point he questions the king’s integrity. “What it takes. What was necessary. But this—the killing of Uriah, and the good men who fell beside him—these deaths had not been necessary to gain a kingdom or secure it. These deaths had not been necessary to anything other than David’s own ungirt appetite. It was simply abuse of power.”
Along the journey of King David’s life, Geraldine Brooks injects love, lust, sex, and romance, including hints of homosexuality. She portrays David in many colors. He is both loving and cruel. At times he is ruthless; at others relenting—“whatever it takes. What was necessary.”
Throughout the book David remains loyal to God and to his mission of freeing the oppressed and returning the ark. When the ark is finally in sight, David becomes “as wild as a boy, as ardent as a lover, his arms outstretched, sprinting toward the ark. When he reached it, he cast himself down in full prostration, his arms stretched out as if in the widest embrace. It was a lover’s moment, between him and the Name, the great One had had blessed him, kept him, and brought him to this moment.”
There is no avoiding the modern-day parallels in this novel of life in Second Iron Age, Israel. Geraldine Brooks is writing about King David but it could be 2015. Israelis and Palestinians are still divided over land. The Muslim faith is under siege. Soldiers are dying for causes they believe in. And we are still debating history. In many ways the chords of the past are still with us today, like “secrets,” left to novelists and historians to unravel. If nothing else, this is both timely and absorbing, and would make a great movie.