Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 3, 2016

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord is perhaps not one of Geraldine Brook’s most successful novels.  It was not quite what I had had in mind as an easy read to romp through in the drowsy days following Christmas and New Year.  It’s  a fictionalisation of the life of the Biblical David (the one who composed the Psalms) and his quest to unite the tribes of Israel under one king.

Narrated by the prophet Natan, the story pads out what little is known from the historical record and of course from the Bible.

Natan is more commonly known as Nathan, the court prophet for King David.  Brooks chose to use –

personal and place-names in their transliteration from the Hebrew of the Tanakh: Shaul, Shmuel and Shlomo, for example, rather than the perhaps more familiar Saul, Samuel and Solomon

Since “perhaps” like most people, I’m not familiar with the Tanakh, this had the effect of distancing the story from what little I know of the Old Testament version anyway.

Much as I’ve enjoyed Brooks’ books before, this one didn’t really work for me.  The Old Testament is, as we all know, full of men behaving badly, and having a prophet around to wring his hands while sanctifying rape, pillage and murder in the cause of a greater good (i.e. uniting the tribes of Israel) doesn’t do much to restrain David’s behaviour.  Especially since Natan does a lot of rueing the day but doesn’t do a lot of castigating David – and David doesn’t take any notice of his murmurings anyway.   Why would he, when the powerful voice of The Name issues from the same mouth and has much more interesting prophecies to listen to?  Both these characters seem to abide by the maxim ‘whatever is necessary’ for a leader to achieve the goal handed down from On High.

I’m over-simplifying, I know.  Readers are meant to bring a sophisticated attitude to this work, and to recognise that David is a man whose greatness is accompanied by human flaws.  We are meant to recognise the thoroughness by which Brooks has recreated the moral universe as well as the physical universe of that time, and to understand that sacking entire villages – men, women and children – is how tribes protected themselves from further attack, and that bedding an assortment of women willing and otherwise to beget an heir was an important responsibility in an hierarchical society.  We are supposed to understand that sons in the line of an important succession are liable to be ungovernable and we have to accept that women had to put up with what was dished out because that’s how it was.   We ought to understand that a king can’t risk revenge from a man he’s cuckolded.  We should have a mature understanding that men who were poorly parented themselves can become fathers whose need to be loved makes them too weak to rein in their wayward children.  And of course we ought to know that power corrupts and that kings don’t always punish the crimes of their friends and relations as they should.

But you know, I got sick of reading about betrayal, and lies, and disgusting brutal rapes and appalling bloodthirsty violence.  Sick and tired of it.  Call me Pollyanna if you like but I found the novel as a whole grotesque and I thought that one gratuitous scene of graphic sexual violence in particular was repellent in the extreme.  I found this David of The Secret Chord loathsome, even more loathsome than his brutal sadistic sons because he let them go unpunished.  Reading this book was like watching one of those awful violent Hollywood movies where both the good and the bad guys have free rein to do whatever they like.  And apart from a bit of David’s harp playing and composing a psalm or two there was very little let-up from a catalogue of battle-gore, brutality, sexual violence and sadism.

So no, this was not a great book to start my reading year.  Thank goodness I had Writing is Easy by Gert Loveday on my Kindle because I was in dire need of a good chuckle as a break from all the blood and gore.

Other reviews are at The Guardian and The NY Times.  (They think it’s terrific).

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: The Secret Chord
Publisher: Hachette, 2015
ISBN: 9780733632174 (hardcover)
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond:
The Secret Chord



  1. Phew Lisa. This makes me feel better! One of my reading group friends was rather disappointed when two of us vetoed this book for next year’s schedule. I like Brooks, but my friend and I felt we’ve given her a good go in our reading group and, without being unkind to Brooks (who, I think is a delightful person with her heart in the right political place) we wanted to add variety to our reading. The proposer was rather disappointed but she took it in good grace and said she’d read it anyhow.


    • Well, I was disappointed. She’s an author whose new releases I look forward to. Let’s hope this is a one off…


      • I was disappointed in The people of the book, I guess, so I’ve been wondering whether she is getting into a bit of a rut. I’d love to see her tackle an Australian story.


        • Been away from Australia too long?


          • I think she splits her time somewhat between the two countries? But anyhow, I’ve often wondered whether she’s a little nervous. When my group went to a dinner-lecture when March was released, she indicated she had an idea for an Australian topic, but I haven’t seen it yet. That was what was partly behind my comment.


            • Unless she spends a fair bit of time here it’s inevitable that she’d get a bit out of touch. We only have to go overseas for a week before we find that we have to actively seek out Australian news. Oz is just not on the radar overseas.


              • True, but that’s not such as issue these days since you can listen, for example, to any ABC radio station you like anywhere around the world. Whether you would if you were living in another country or not is another question, though being a journalist by training she might?


                • Brooks is not the only Australian writer to live overseas but she doesn’t seem to me to engage in any meaningful way with Australian cultural life, certainly not in the way that Greer, or Carey or Clive James do.


                • No, not a lot Bill, though she was on Q&A recently! Does that count!


  2. So many Americans ‘anti war’ movies are full of action which we are meant to abhor, but which seem to me just another excuse for gratuitous violence, and this book sounds just the same. I have with me Joan London’s Gilgamesh, I’ll have to see if she does it better (though what do we do about historical novels with C21st heroines?).


    • Well, it must be over a decade since I read Gilgamesh, but from what I remember, you won’t be disappointed.


      • I agree Lisa – it’s a wonderful book that I loved. And it’s set partly in WA.


  3. I have to admit that this book holds no interest for me because my knowledge of the bible is very poor and in the past these kinds of stories have never worked for me.


    • I would have said the same, but I really enjoyed Leslie Cannold’s The Book of Rachael, using Rachael as an imagined sister of Jesus. I liked it for the historical world it created, and for the moral issues it raised.


  4. I am not well versed with the Bible. I enjoyed The Secret Chord and I don’t like to read about violence. However, once I got into the book I was eager to read more about the characters and the story. For me it was not as good as People of the Book, but a big improvement on Caleb’s Crossing.


  5. Lisa, why would you expect to have a light easy read with Geraldine Brooks? In the past she’s written about the great plague in Britain, the American civil war and her work as a war correspondent – none of it light and breezy. I think The Secret Chord is a wonderful book that should be treated with the same respect as her others. It took me to a time and place I’ve not been to in fiction before and the characters were very real for me. Yes there was brutality but you could see that Brooks research was meticulous and that was the way people lived then.
    I’m keen to see your review of Louis de Bernieres book, The Dust that Falls from Dreams. Is that still in your TBR pile?


    • Well, I guess we have to disagree on this one Bernadette.
      Yes, I’ve still got Dust in the TBR. But *blush* I’ve got two others of his that I haven’t read yet either. I don’t have a good reason, I just haven’t got round to them, and I love his work. Soon, soon, I promise!


  6. Thanks Lisa. You’ve saved me the worry of whether I should read the book or not. For similar reasons I won’t be reading Wood’s Natural Way of Things – I get terribly depressed very easily in reading such works


    • Funny you should mention the Wood book. I have been putting off reading it – Charlotte Wood, one of my favourite authors! – because I don’t much like what I’ve read about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I was disappointed by this as well, I actually liked Caleb’s Crossing, although it also frustrated me in ways, I often imagine where her stories could go, because they have such great potential and then they don’t, and they fall short somehow. I agree with you on all the despicable behaviour, it was too much for me, but then so was Richard Flanagan, I couldn’t finish his book.


    • Well, I reckon I’m pretty stoic when it comes to reading distressing stuff, but – as I’ve said – I just got sick of it. Maybe it’s because of the way that the issue of domestic violence has played out here in Australia, that I just feel, no, enough already!

      Liked by 1 person

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