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