Book Review: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)

David would have the throne, the crown, the line of descendants that the Name had promised him. But for the rest of his life, he would be scalded by the consequences of his choices. My task would be twofold: To stand up to him, and to stand by him. To awaken his conscience, and to salve the pain this would cause him. To help him to endure through the hard days and years that lay ahead of him.

David was a man after God’s own heart. His life is told with great detail in the Old Testament, more than almost any other person in the Bible. 1 and 2 Samuel are almost entirely about him. The second king of Israel, the one who unites the kingdom and brings it to greater power, the writer of many of the Psalms. A man who loved God and whom God loved. A man who sinned greatly, who did things with great passion, for good and evil.

The Secret Chord, taking its name from the famous Leonard Cohen song, tells the story of David as seen through the prophet Nathan. After a life time in Sunday School and church, I knew Nathan best as the one who confronts and condemns David’s actions after his seduction of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. These events stand at the centre of the novel (do I need to call spoilers on something that happened thousands of years ago?) but Brooks goes further into David’s past, as well as into the fallout of David’s sin.

The novel begins with Natan* journeying to David’s home town, undertaking the task of writing about David’s life. Although no such book remains, the Bible does reference Natan writing such a history. Along with the famous stories of David as a boy – killing a lion, slaying Goliath – Brooks weaves in more fictional ideas about David’s place in his family and what it was like for him to be first embraced by Shaul the king, and then rejected and hunted.

Natan returns to the palace to learn that David has seduced a married woman, the beautiful Batsheva. When Batsheva becomes pregnant, David takes further action to hide his first sin. Natan, one of the only people surrounding the powerful king, is the one who dares confront him and condemn him.

The book offers an interesting portrayal of a prophet in the character of Natan. Entering the story of David’s life as a young boy, Natan has powerful visions and words for David that are out of his control or knowledge. He frequently sees things that he isn’t present for. He cannot control when and to whom the prophecies will come and, at times, he knows things but is unable to speak them. Beyond this though, he seems to have little connection or relationship with God. As a Christian, I found those personal connections with God – which are a powerful part of David’s story in the Bible – to be lacking in Brooks’ account. Natan is a lonely figure in David’s court, unmarried, feared by many, though kept close by David who values his guidance. They have a unique relationship, not equals but in many ways Natan is closer to David than anyone else. Of course, much of the book is fiction and most of what Brooks creates of Natan is made up. She spins the fictional in skillfully with the Biblical history though, blending the two seamlessly. For example, David did name one of his sons Natan, which may signify a close relationship between the two men.

David himself is a larger-than-life figure. Charismatic, intelligent, good-looking, daring, and kind. He is a good king – brave in battle, wise in leadership. He is likeable and it’s easy to see why so many would follow him and risk their lives for him.

…the common soldiers did not blame him for his excessive grief. They knew him. They knew his flaws. Indeed, I think they loved him all the more because he was flawed, as they were, and did not hide his passionate, blemished nature.

His great downfall, as Brooks demonstrates it, is his lust for women and his weakness in raising his children. He is too often blinded by his own emotions and yet, at the same time, this is what makes him so human. As Brooks points out in the book’s Afterword, David must have existed because who would create such a flawed hero? Brooks doesn’t shy away from telling the darker sides of David’s history – not just his adultery but the bloodshed and vengeance done in the name of God and in uniting a kingdom. It is a difficult and complicated portrait and we are left to wonder that this is a man God loved and blessed so deeply.

Yet David was also punished deeply and the last part of the book focuses on this punishment and sorrow. On the fracture of his own family and the deaths of those he loves who he must bear witness to. The horror of his son Amnon’s sin, the betrayal of Avshalom. And then, a growing glimmer of hope in an unexpected place – Batsheva’s son, Shlomo.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the Biblical account of David’s life, this book is well-written and fascinating and I would recommend it. It could make an interesting read in combination with The Red Tent.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

  • Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

*Brooks uses the less common transliterations of names so I’ll use those from here on out too.

 

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