About a million years ago (okay, more like fifteen, but that still makes me feel incredibly old) I used to be a holiday camp counsellor at a Christian camp. While I’m not a devout church-goer these days, I like to credit myself with a better-than-average knowledge of biblical stories. I’m also an avid fan of historical fiction, especially novels based on real-characters. When I was offered the opportunity to review The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, I was excited. While I’m yet to read any other of her works, I was intrigued by the idea of a retelling of the story of King David’s rise and fall of power.
So David… yes, that David. The one who toppled Goliath. That much at least is general pop culture knowledge. Lesser, but still widely known is that he rose to become king and enjoyed several years of glory before his inevitable decline. Brooks focuses largely on these middle years, showing David through the eyes of his prophet. Natan’s view of his king is unpolished, allowing us to see behind the shiny facade to a man who is all too human. Reference to his rise to fame is made through the device of Natan interviewing David’s family to create a biographical record, allowing us to view another perspective of the story we are so familiar with. The story then winds its way through a series of intrigues and calamities, showing us that no choice comes without consequence.
I found the narrative style interesting – the switch from flashback (via interviews) to modern day took me by surprise and was a little bit jarring but I understand the choice. Just as with you or I, looking at David’s motivations for his actions in the latter half of the book don’t make as much sense when you look at them in isolation. Our pasts make us who we are and I feel that Brooks convinces us that this is also true for David. I loved the use of Natan as the narrative voice. A prophet was uniquely positioned to provide a bystander point of view – close enough to the King to see behind the screen, but honest with no personal agenda for position or power. I think that Brooks writes a very empathetic character – imperfect too, but one who feels like the true protagonist of the story.
One of the things I loved was how, in a story that circled around the relationships of men, Brooks had some incredibly strong female characters. Avigail, one of David’s earlier wives, was a particular favourite… may I grow up to be as wise as her one day! The story is still very appropriate to the era – David’s women have very little say in their destiny, they’re possessions after all – while not dimming the inner fire that one imagines would attract a King in the first place. One thing that surprised me was how sudden the ending of the novel appeared to be; it left me wanting more detail, know more about the characters being left behind.
Definitely a bit heavier – this is probably not going to be your summer beach read. The novel lends itself more to that lazy Sunday where you want to sit down with a coffee and a pain au chocolat and get into something real. If you love biographies, historical fiction or finding out a little bit more about cultural icons, this is is your book.
If you enjoy this book, you may also like:
Mary Called Magdelene by Margaret George: Mary Magdelene has had her name dragged through the muck throughout the ages, labelled an adulteress, a prostitute and worse. George offers us the story from Mary’s point of view, battling literal demons and the challenges of being a woman called to follow her Messiah.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant: Jacob and his sons are known to history, especially to those of us who have seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. The story of The Red Tent follows that of his daughter Dinah, a minor character in the bible, and examines the bonds of love, family and sisterhood in a world ruled by men.