“The Secret Chord,” a novel by Geraldine Brooks. October 2015 from Viking, an imprint of PenguinRandom House. Hardcover, 302 pages, $27.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven, as an e-book, and at Island libraries.
In “The Secret Chord,” best-selling Island novelist Geraldine Brooks has served up a brilliant, engrossing, and painfully human depiction of David, the king of of biblical and historical legend, who joined the tribes of Judah and Israel into a nation during the Second Iron Age (about 1,000 BCE). “The Secret Chord” was released on Oct. 6.
Unlike her four previous novels, including the Pulitzer Prizewinning “March,” an American Civil War story, Ms. Brooks did not have information provided by historical records and documents to reference for “The Secret Chord.” The few clues to King David’s existence are found almost solely in the Old Testament, other than a few scraps of information gleaned from archaeological discoveries and the findings deduced in scholarly work.
There is both an art and a craft to great writing, and Ms. Brooks uses her considerable craft as a journalist to pull the story together in a meaningful way for her readers. From her study of the biblical text as an historical source, the vetting of scholarly research, and long weeks personally exploring the land, hills, and caves of Israel, Ms. Brooks has fashioned a story of love, faith, cruelty, and poetry, centered in a man who reshaped his world and left a robust legacy, intact 3,000 years later.
In the book’s afterword, Ms. Brooks says that she agreed with the conclusion reached by British author and diplomat Duff Cooper about the existence of David. Viscount Norwich Cooper, no stranger to excessive lifestyle himself, remarked that David must have existed because “no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.”
“The Secret Chord” gives life to biblical names familiar to all of us, particularly to those of us unfamiliar with the Bible as an historical and religious document. We meet King Saul, David, Bathsheba, the seer Samuel, and Solomon, the young king in waiting. Particularly, we also meet the prophet Nathan (Natan in the book), who acts as our narrator, and the diviner of Yah (Yahweh)’s plan for David.
Natan is the key character for us and for David. As “The Secret Chord” begins, Natan has been charged with writing David’s story as the king enters his final years. David is initially unconvinced of the idea, but relents to Natan’s reasoning and to their relationship of trust, built on making war and peace together and on Natan’s commitment to tell his king the truth, regardless of consequences.
Their story begins when David and his loyalists, on the run from King Saul, find the shepherd boy Natan, as King Saul found the shepherd boy David, who would slay Goliath and create the legend that turned Saul against him.
His story, as narrated by Natan, is rich and full of the sight, sound, and smells of that time, of David’s great love of music and women, of butchery, tribal intrigues, and honor. David’s life mantra is to do “Whatever it takes. What is necessary.” Natan’s job is to be courageous, to withhold judgment of his king, and to be the oracle through whom Yah speaks. To be of service.
While David is larger than life and others, particularly the women in his life, show nobility and strength, Natan emerges as the most complex character in this book.
We all know charismatic men like David, and we know men who lead the dissolute lives that his sons, save Solomon, chose to live. We have experienced the power that enduring women bring to the lives around them, but few of us witness a faith and devotion to a cause that requires Natan to live a rigorously disciplined, abstemious life in the service of others.
To be clear, “The Secret Chord” is not a book about theism. But it is about life of the spirit. Good literature entertains us, informs us, and leads us to think about life and the human condition.
“The Secret Chord” meets those criteria. This reader, for example, is left with the belief that, 3,000 years later, we are capable of the same brutalities, and equally capable of creating healing art, such as the psalms David wrote and sang with his harp.
And that, oracles aside, the best we can do is to plan the plan and let the outcome take care of itself. That’s how Natan did it, and he tells us he is at peace.
Ms. Brooks talked about her new book in an interview with the Times, and she will discuss “The Secret Chord” on Oct. 18 at 5 pm in a discussion at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven. The discussion is free to the public.