Title: The Secret Chord
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Austalia
Publication Date: 10th October 2015
Rating: 5/5 stars
1000 BC. The Second Iron Age. The time of King David.
Anointed as the chosen one when just a young shepherd boy, David will rise to be king, grasping the throne and establishing his empire. But his journey is a tumultuous one and the consequences of his choices will resound for generations. In a life that arcs from obscurity to fame, he is by turn hero and traitor, glamorous young tyrant and beloved king, murderous despot and remorseful, diminished patriarch. His wives love and fear him, his sons will betray him. It falls to Natan, the courtier and prophet who both counsels and castigates David, to tell the truth about the path he must take.
With stunning originality, acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks offers us a compelling portrait of a morally complex hero from this strange age – part legend, part history. Full of drama and richly drawn detail, The Secret Chord is a vivid story of faith, family, desire and power that brings David magnificently alive.
I absolutely adored Brooks’ People of the Book, which followed the Sarajevo Haggadah throughout history. It was just amazing, and she approached the religious sentiment in such an incredible way so as to avoid alienating any of her readers, religious or not.
Having felt such a strong connection to People of the Book, I went searching for more of Brooks’ work. I tried March, but didn’t enjoy it, putting that down to my disenchantment with Little Women (March is based on the girls’ absent father). I tried Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard – the story just fell flat; I didn’t connect to the main characters. Then, last year, I purchased a copy of Year of Wonders – a fictional account of a fascinating historical period, where a whole town quarantined themselves to prevent the spread of plague. However, again, I just didn’t enjoy reading it.
And FINALLY, after all of these disappointments, I took the plunge with The Secret Chord, and I am so very glad that I did. Geraldine Brooks is at her best when she writes about biblical history.
The Secret Chord is narrated by Natan, David’s prophet. David has invited him to assemble a biography of sorts, and has given him the names of the people who have known him best at pivotal moments in his life. Thus, a lot of the story is in conversation form, where Natan is questioning and listening to others.
Every moment is completely on point – David is a very flawed character, trying to reconcile the many varied facets of his personality with the person he wants to be. He struggles with his temper, and he can be very selfish. Yet, at his core, Natan (and therefore the reader) still sees some good.
The historical period is bloody. There are many battle scenes, some very gory. In fact, David first meets Natan after killing the prophet’s father. Natan gives his first prophecy standing knee-deep in his family’s blood. Yet, Brooks writes battles well. I was reading the tale of David and Goliath during my lunch break and I was so caught up in this intense story that I completely lost track of time!
I find stories which describe the lives of the characters from the Bible absolutely fascinating. Although I have not persevered with the Bible, fictional accounts of the Biblical era have always attracted my attention. David’s story has been called by some scholars as the oldest piece of history writing. Brooks has taken this biography and breathed life into it, recreating the scenes and the emotion for a modern audience.
The book’s title comes from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ – Brooks recounts in her Afterword that the inspiration for this book struck after hearing her son play an arrangement of the song on the harp at his bar mitzvah.
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
This book is a truly amazing piece of historical fiction, and it has definitely reinvigorated me in my quest to finish the Bible (I have been intending to read it cover to cover since I was in high school). Using religious history, Brooks has made these characters so incredibly human in her work, giving the general populace common ground with an historical king.
What are your thoughts on fictionalisations of religious history?