I love historical fiction and Geraldine Brooks has been one of my favorite writers in this genre. I have now officially read all of her novels. The Secret Chord (2015) is about one of the most famous men in history, King David. Very little factual information exists about him, and in this novel, Brooks imagines his rise to power and rule through the eyes of his advisor/seer, the prophet Natan. Natan has witnessed David’s ruthlessness firsthand, but he also senses David’s strong connection to the Name (God) and his destiny. Natan’s gifts as a prophet allow him to watch David up close and to see what the future will hold for him and his descendants. While I got through this book pretty quickly, I don’t feel that it is as good as Brooks’ previous works. Character development is not as complete as I would have liked, and this detracts from the plot, such as it is.
Brooks builds her narrative on what little is known about David and the world he inhabited. He was the youngest son of a large family and was working as a shepherd when Shmuel (Samuel), King Shaul’s (Saul) prophet recognized him as chosen by the Name for service to Shaul. David earned Shaul’s praise for his military exploits but then his resentment and envy for the same. David and his followers turned into a band of marauders who eventually were able to conquer and unite the tribes, with David eventually becoming King himself. Along the way, David acquired several wives, perhaps most famously Batsheva, whose husband Uriah David had killed. We also know that David is credited with writing music and the psalms, and that his descendants did rule a successful kingdom.
One of the things that surprised me about this novel is that despite the subject matter and narrator, it really has little to do with religion or faith. One gets no sense of what the faith of these men or their people means to them or how it is practiced. The David of this novel is first and foremost a political actor, and given that he spent much of his life leading battles and then building a kingdom, that shouldn’t be surprising but I found it strange nonetheless. Having the blessing of the Name mattered deeply to David and it buttressed his claims to rulership. Natan’s faith is a mystery as well. The Name uses Natan as a vessel to speak to David, telling him that he was destined to sire a great nation, etc. While Natan is an upright character, occasionally taking David to task for his moral failings, he never reveals to the reader the nature of his religious beliefs are or how he practices them. The novel seems devoid of faith, and that seems odd when it is narrated by a prophet.
Rather than religion or faith, The Secret Chord is a novel about patriarchy. Natan joins up with David’s band of soldiers on the run from King Shaul after David has murdered Natan’s father and every other male in his village. Natan, a fellow shepherd, had previously encountered David, who showed him kindness, and the Name draws him to David. He utters his first prophecy about David’s destiny, and their relationship is sealed. Natan, through his own eyewitness accounts and through the accounts of those close to David whom he interviews, reveals the details of the most important events in David’s life: slaying Goliath, his relationships with Saul and Saul’s children, consolidating a kingdom, and the complicated relationships with his many wives and children. There are bloody battles, illicit loves, betrayals, rapes. And always, David emphasizing that in order to fulfill his destiny he must do “whatever it takes. Whatever was necessary.” David’s destiny, his dynasty, is built but at great cost. If you are familiar with the stories of David’s children, then you know that murder and incest are part of that. The message of the book seems to be that in the end, it was all worth it. The final scene involves a glorious celebration with the people of Jerusalem, David’s city, singing his songs.
“Then, for a long moment, all the notes came together, all the music of the heavens and the earth, combining at last into one sustained, sublime, entirely glorious chord.”
I found this jarring after reading what happened to David’s family, largely because he was an ineffective father who worried more about politics than the individuals in his life. I guess when you are on a mission from God, the ends justify the means?
The David that Brooks imagines reminded me of the Henry VIII that Hilary Mantel imagined in her trilogy. These are men who hunger for power and for love; they commit horrific acts in the name of both; and when they have killed people or wounded those close to them, they need to be told it’s ok and they are forgiven, still good in God’s eyes. I found David and Natan’s story far less interesting than that of the female characters in the book. Imagining the rise of David through their eyes would have been far more interesting to me. I would recommend any of Brooks’ other novels before this one. It just seems to fall short of her usual standard of excellence.