Reading History: “The Secret Chord” (Geraldine Brooks)

Some writers of historical fiction have a particular knack for evoking a sense of the strangeness of a past culture, capturing in their language the ethos that drives a particular culture.  Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, and Madeline Miller are examples of such writers, and with The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks proves that she can also be numbered among those with a keen understanding of the ancient world and an appreciation of its differences from the modern we currently inhabit.

Told from the point of view of Natan, one of the Old Testament’s most  famous prophets, the novel follows the rise of the biblical king David and his gradual decline, as well as the rise of his son Shlomo (known to us as Solomon).  We see David through Natan’s eyes, as a brilliant but flawed man who managed to forge a measure of peace and unity upon a fractious and warlike people.  David is also a man driven by passions, including his ill-fated (and, in this novel, explicitly physical) love of Yonatan, the son of tragic King Shaul, and his ruinous and ultimately catastrophic lust for the woman Batsheva, the wife of his general Uriah.  Natan stands with David through all of the trials that follow until, as the old king nears his death, he conspires with Batsheva to ensure that Shlomo inherits the throne.

David emerges from this novel as a compelling but flawed king, a man capable of bringing the scattered and feuding Jewish tribes together into a nation.  However, for all of his political and military abilities, he is also prone to his own sexual desires, and he is stubbornly blind to the numerous faults of his many sons.  It is the combination of these two flaws that ultimately rends David’s family and threatens to undo the unity of the kingdom, a fate only narrowly averted by the manipulation of Batsheva and her ally Natan.

While Natan is our access to this world, he is far from an idealized hero.  Like David, he makes choices that seem morally and ethically questionable from our modern perspective.  In perhaps his most important and morally dubious move, he lies to David about a promise that he supposedly made to Batsheva regarding Shlomo’s right to inherit the throne, taking advantage of his monarch’s aged weakness in order to usher in the period of greatness that he has seen as a result of his visions.  Is he justified in doing so?  Probably, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has taken advantage of an ailing man in order to bring about that vision.

Thus, Natan is also a hero who struggles to enact or maintain his own agency.  The Name constantly subjects Natan to a fate that he cannot control.  He does not get to choose when the moments of prophecy come upon him and, even when he is granted a vision of what is to come, he can only do what he thinks is best in order to bring about that period of future greatness.  Often, while the Name gives him the opportunity to see things that are denied to others, Natan is often unable to do anything to change the course of events.  He cannot, for example, do anything to stop David from his affair with Batsheva, and he similarly can do nothing to stop the assault of David’s daughter by her half-brother.  The sight is a blessing, but it is also a burden and a curse.

While this is undoubtedly a thoroughly patriarchal world, the novel does acknowledge the ways in which women in this culture are consistently devalued and treated as little more than either receptacles of male desire or as political pawns to be utilized as the men in their families see fit.  Rather than romanticizing the relationship between Batsheva and David, for example, is explicitly framed as a rape, though she ultimately realizes that she has much to gain by insinuating herself with David, and much to lose if she turns against him.  Such is the painful lesson learned by Shaul’s tragic daughter Michal, whose passionate love for David ultimately turns sour and bitter, as she is first ignored and married to another man, and then forced into a marriage with David.  Similar, though less tragic, narratives emerge around the other women in David’s life, for they all realize that their political and personal well-being, as well as that of their children, relies upon their proximity to the king and their ability to stay in his good graces.

If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s that it seems a bit too short.  There are some characters who ultimately fade into the background, never to be seen again (most notably Michal).  However, the brevity of the novel also gives it an narrative urgency that keeps the reader arrested and invested until the very end.

Once again, Brooks prove herself to be a virtuoso with the written word, her words as haunting and evocative as many of the passages of the Old Testament upon which it is based.  There are some books that are simply an aesthetic pleasure to read, and this happens to be one of them.  This novel is a must for those seeking a truly beautiful novel that brings the world of the ancient Hebrews to piercing and brilliant life.

Score:  10/10

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this novel to review.

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