The Secret Chord: A Novel

Geral­dine Brooks
  • Review
By – November 11, 2015

In her lat­est book, Pulitzer Prize win­ner Geral­dine Brooks sets her­self the daunt­ing chal­lenge of por­tray­ing one of the most hero­ic yet moral­ly trou­bling fig­ures in the entire cor­pus of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture — and indeed world lit­er­a­ture as a whole.

The entire arc of King David’s career, from shep­herd to Lear-like decrepi­tude, is told through the prophet Natan. Men­tioned in just a few entic­ing places in Scrip­ture, Natan’s shad­owy pres­ence leaves a great deal to fill in. Brooks adds intri­cate lay­ers to his some­times melan­choly per­spec­tive, employ­ing the inge­nious (and sly­ly anachro­nis­tic) device of the inter­views he con­ducts with oth­ers, pre­sum­ably at the behest of the king him­self, who wish­es a full and unspar­ing chron­i­cle of his life and king­ship as a lega­cy. The result is a shift­ing, mul­ti­fac­eted tapes­try that cap­tures both the enor­mi­ty of David’s crimes as well as his gen­eros­i­ty and large­ness of heart — embell­ished by a potent line or two from Scrip­ture cun­ning­ly insert­ed here and there, to great effect.. Above all, The Secret Chord suc­ceeds as a rich­ly accom­plished char­ac­ter study of all the peo­ple who love, hate, and fear David. The most haunt­ing of these are the voic­es of women: Bat­she­va, Mikhal, and Avi­gail, among others.

With all of palace intrigue, shift­ing alliances, rec­on­cil­i­a­tions, and betray­als, The Secret Chord is also a gen­uine page-turn­er, sus­pense­ful no mat­ter how well one knows the source of this adap­ta­tion. It is hard to sin­gle out just one exam­ple of how Brooks’ elec­tri­fy­ing prose enlivens the orig­i­nal text, but one of the most mem­o­rable por­tray­als depicts the rela­tion­ship between David and Yonatan, King Saul’s son, as unabashed­ly erot­ic as it is soul­ful, a deci­sion that will like­ly res­onate with many read­ers and even hints at an under­ly­ing cause for David’s ephemer­al rela­tions with the women of the sto­ry. There are also a few delight­ful­ly inven­tive bits such as Natan’s gen­tle Mer­lin-like tute­lage of the young Solomon. Where Brooks adheres close­ly to the con­tours of scrip­ture in most oth­er instances, she always finds delight­ful ways to deep­en and enliv­en the old sto­ry, as her prophet nar­ra­tor tran­scribes: as sour as the gall ink in which I wrote.” Nor does she shy from the story’s most ter­ri­ble episodes — the hor­ri­fy­ing rape of Tamar by her half-broth­er, for instance — and mas­ter­ful­ly grap­pling with the social, eco­nom­ic, and mil­i­tary real­i­ties of the Sec­ond Iron Age. Brooks immers­es her­self in the antiq­ui­ties of the David­i­an peri­od in Jerusalem as well as the Judean desert land­scape, an effort that shines forth with bril­liant results on every page. She ren­ders the hor­rif­ic bru­tal­i­ty of bib­li­cal bat­tles as vis­cer­al­ly as those in the Ili­ad with the same unspar­ing realism.

In her evoca­tive After­word, Brooks reveals the irre­sistible nature of the David epic, not­ing that some schol­ars con­sid­er the bib­li­cal record of his mar­tial tri­umphs and moral fail­ings to be the old­est his­to­ry writ­ing, pre­dat­ing even Herodotus: David is the first man in lit­er­a­ture whose sto­ry is told in detail from ear­ly child­hood to extreme old age.” It is easy to grasp just why the David has com­mand­ed the inter­est of many artists over the cen­turies, regret­tably cul­mi­nat­ing in a num­ber of atro­cious Hol­ly­wood films, but few have achieved the artistry of Brooks’ tri­umphant achieve­ment in The Secret Chord, a thor­ough­ly absorb­ing recast­ing of sacred nation­al­ist myth.

Relat­ed Content:

Inter­view with Geral­dine Brooks

by Ranen Omer-Sher­man

In her lat­est book, Pulitzer Prize win­ner Geral­dine Brooks sets her­self the daunt­ing chal­lenge of por­tray­ing one of the most hero­ic yet moral­ly trou­bling fig­ures in the entire cor­pus of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. She shared her expe­ri­ence research­ing, con­coct­ing, and writ­ing The Secret Chord: A Nov­el with Jew­ish Book Council.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man: What struck me most in read­ing The Secret Chord was the ambi­tious work that you do with women’s voic­es and inte­ri­or­i­ty. They are all such dis­tinc­tive and engag­ing char­ac­ters, each with dis­parate emo­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al respons­es to their cir­cum­stances. How chal­leng­ing was that aspect of writ­ing the novel?

Geral­dine Brooks: For many years before I became a nov­el­ist, I cov­ered the Mid­dle East as cor­re­spon­dent for the Wall Street Jour­nal, and I found myself return­ing to those expe­ri­ences — not just to the loca­tions — as I thought about this nov­el. Espe­cial­ly, I drew on those mem­o­ries as I con­sid­ered the vivid sto­ries of David’s wives. Women in the Old Tes­ta­ment don’t tend to get much ink. Many of them bare­ly get a name. Lot’s wife… Gladys? Noah’s wife… Maude? We don’t know. And that’s both remark­able and dispir­it­ing. Yet David’s wives do have names, and they have dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties and back­sto­ries. But they are sketch­es, mere­ly, told in a few lines, and always from the male point of view — from the per­spec­tive of their impact on David; of what it was like to be them, noth­ing much is said. So I want­ed to flip the point of view, and look at events through their eyes. These women lead pre­car­i­ous lives in a soci­ety that gives them no evi­dent pow­er and few rights. David’s wives have to duck and weave and impro­vise to stay alive, to have say in their mar­riages, to stop their hus­bands from mak­ing mis­takes like­ly to get them killed, to secure a future for their chil­dren. So many of the works of schol­ar­ship on David take the Bible at face val­ue when it comes to the women’s sto­ries: Mikhal is unfail­ing­ly por­trayed as spoiled shrew, Bath­she­va as a schem­ing temptress.

If you apply a woman’s point of view, nei­ther inter­pre­ta­tion is plau­si­ble. So I thought about women I had report­ed on, women like Queen Noor in Jor­dan and Aya­tol­lah Khomeini’s wife in Iran. As I thought about Bath­she­va at David’s deathbed, maneu­ver­ing to get her young son Solomon on the throne, I thought of Queen Noor at the Mayo Clin­ic in Min­neso­ta, as King Hus­sein lay ill with can­cer. Some­how, it was Noor’s young son who was named crown prince, sec­ond in line to King Abdul­lah, ahead of many old­er broth­ers by Hussein’s for­mer wives.

And then there was Mikhal, who became David’s first wife. Her father, King Shaul, was ambiva­lent about the mar­riage. That remind­ed me of a strange after­noon when I was invit­ed to tea by Aya­tol­lah Khomenini’s wid­ow. She told me that day how she had man­aged to mar­ry a guy who was then an impov­er­ished reli­gious schol­ar with no prospects. Khadi­jeh was just a girl, ful­ly veiled in her chador, when she took in the tea tray and man­aged to catch a glimpse of her would be suit­or, the young Ruhol­lah Kohmeni­ni. She liked that glimpse, but her father said no, he wasn’t good enough. So, that night, she had a dream. In the morn­ing, she told her father that she had seen Ruhol­lah meet­ing with all the great prophets of Islam. It’s prob­a­ble that 99.9% of Ira­ni­ans don’t know Khomenini’s wife’s first name. And yet she was immense­ly pow­er­ful in shap­ing the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion. So, there were plen­ty of lessons about how you wield pri­vate pow­er in a soci­ety that pub­licly bare­ly acknowl­edges you.

ROS: Your por­tray­al of the prophet Natan is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly com­pelling, delv­ing into the strange psy­chol­o­gy and inte­ri­or land­scape of the Bib­li­cal prophet as a fig­ure of moral con­science, his per­pet­u­al lone­li­ness and sense of apart­ness in spite of being in the very midst of things. Did you find that par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult to achieve?

GB: I relied heav­i­ly on the won­der­ful exe­ge­sis by Abra­ham Hes­chel in The Prophets. His char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of them (“some of the most dis­turb­ing men who ever lived[…] fac­ing man, faced by God”) real­ly shaped my think­ing as I tried to cre­ate a char­ac­ter and a back­sto­ry for Natan. There are givens: the fero­cious brav­ery of such a per­son, the will­ing­ness to speak truth to pow­er, the unset­tling nature of the one who stands out­side, but sees inside. I also want­ed to leave the door open a crack for the read­er: since Natan is the nar­ra­tor, and he clear­ly believes his own role as the hol­low reed”, is he a reli­able wit­ness to his own gifts and pow­ers? Is he a reli­able nar­ra­tor? That’s why, at points, I have oth­er char­ac­ters in the nov­el express skep­ti­cism about his visions and their purpose.

ROS: I found your depic­tion of the ancient land­scape whol­ly con­vinc­ing, a tru­ly immer­sive envi­ron­ment. You have men­tioned spend­ing some time hik­ing with your son (and herd­ing sheep) in the Judean desert and so on, but was there more research involved?

GB: For the sheep herd­ing, we were at a Bib­li­cal reserve in the She­fala, found­ed by Ben Guri­on, where the flo­ra and fau­na have, as far as pos­si­ble, been returned to the species that pre­vailed as described in Bib­li­cal times. We spent a long after­noon there. We also went to a Bedouin set­tle­ment where you can expe­ri­ence a tent encamp­ment not so very dif­fer­ent from the liv­ing con­di­tions of David’s out­law years. We vis­it­ed arche­o­log­i­cal digs to get a more accu­rate sense of the mate­r­i­al cul­ture of the Sec­ond Iron Age — what was a palace in those days? What was a house like? What did they eat and drink? My IDF con­tact got very enthused about the project and actu­al­ly con­duct­ed some of his own site vis­its, for which I am excep­tion­al­ly grateful. 

The imag­i­na­tive chal­lenge in my writ­ing was de-pop­u­lat­ing the land­scape, since only 45,000 peo­ple are thought to have lived in the area con­jec­tural­ly asso­ci­at­ed with David’s king­dom, opposed to some four mil­lion or more in that same area today. I also had to men­tal­ly re-veg­e­tate it: the Ottomans had a tree tax, so mas­sive land clear­ing hap­pened under their occu­pa­tion in that era. In David’s time there were expan­sive forests and lots of fau­na, includ­ing lions!

Con­tin­ue Reading »

Relat­ed Content:

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions