…The stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung. That was my task: to uncover those earliest roots.
Even if you’re not religious, you’re likely familiar with the story of King David, the shepherd boy with a talent for music who slayed a giant, gathered an army and became King of Israel. Everyone knows David the myth, but little is known of David the man. Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord (Hachette Australia, Oct. 2015) takes readers back three thousand years to ask: who was David? And, in seeking an answer, gives voice to those history has traditionally overlooked.
It’s an ambitious premise, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Brooks. Her debut novel Year of Wonders (2001), set during the bubonic plague, has already become something of a classic, while her second novel, March (2005), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She has a particular talent for retelling historical narratives through minor players, and in doing so offering new perspectives on well-worn tales.
Brooks was inspired to explore David’s story when her nine-year-old football-loving son announced that he wanted to learn David’s instrument, the harp. She revisited David’s story in the Bible and found three things: first, that the biblical account of David is fragmented, in Brooks’ words ‘you have to rummage around through several books to piece it together.’ Second, David was not the man she remembered:
We meet David as a despised and neglected child, and follow him through glory and trauma to enfeebled age. In between, everything happens to him. Every human joy, every kind of grief. And this is not the sanitised story of Sunday schools and synagogues. This is a man in full, who too often fails to live up to the laws of his God and the better impulses of his own ardent nature.
Third, she found reference to a missing Book of Natan, an account of King David’s life as told by his prophet. And so that is what Brooks set out to write: the story of a man as told by his most trusted advisor and dearest friend. Natan draws from his experiences with David but also seeks other lost voices to enrich his tale, namely those of the women in David’s life. In having Natan seek out these untold stories, Brooks gifts their tellers complex lives that extend beyond the roles of ‘mother’, ‘wife’, ‘sister’ and ‘daughter’.
When Natan speaks with David’s first, and later estranged, wife, Mikhail, she tells him:
I loved him. You know that, I suppose? … I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording.
Natan, who spends much of his time among David’s wives agrees:
Her observations were quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state if their affections noted. So I set it down as she requested.
Indeed, throughout, Brooks is concerned with the emotional and visceral. Rather than extol the glories of David’s victories, she speculates as to how Natan must have felt seeing David and his men sack a village, slaughtering men and raping women:
Sometimes, I would kneel in the blood and the smoke, exhausted and retching, hoping that the cramp in my gut was a prelude to vision. Hoping that the roar of heaven would issue from my mouth and decry what we had done, that divine wrath would cleave me apart and leave me there among the dismembered dead.
While David marches under the maxim: ‘Whatever it takes. Whatever is necessary,’ Natan wrestles with his faith and questions his divine visions:
I had seen myself as a man in the hand of the Name—serving the king chosen to lead his people in this land. But what kind of god could will this baseness, this treachery? What kind of nation could rise under such a leader? If David was a man after this god’s own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?
I found it an unsettling read. My family is Catholic, but I attended an Anglican primary school before giving up both religion and faith in any higher being as a teenager. I remember learning about David in Religious Education when I was nine or ten—how he defeated Goliath, became a great warrior and was eventually anointed king. I remember that David was wise and a talented musician, and that God punished him for abusing his power and stealing another man’s wife. But he was introduced to me then as an allegorical figure, and I was encouraged to read his actions as good or ill depending on whether or not they were God’s will. To revisit David’s story through Brooks’ candid retelling, as someone who longer believes in God, was uncanny. She doesn’t shy away from the fact David rises to power through manipulation, violence and by placing his own needs before all others. Her David is not a divine agent blindly following orders, but rather a man who takes God’s favour as a vote of confidence and a means to justify his actions. However:
The visions of promised greatness had led him only to bloody deeds and self-regard that made him think he was above the law.
Again and again, he claims only do what is necessary but is prone to excess. Brooks depicts battles and executions in vivid detail, driving home the great blood price David pays for his crown. When he later kneels before his god and begs forgiveness, one cannot help but question his sincerity and whether he truly serves God or merely himself.
While The Secret Chord is, at its heart, a character study and David’s story a familiar one, Brooks also weaves tension and intrigue with diligent research and rich detail to create a well-paced, compelling read. Even if you’re not a regular reader of historical fiction, this is one for the TBR pile.
Thank you to Hachette Australia for providing a copy of The Secret Chord in exchange for an honest review.
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