In novels like Year of Wonders, People of the Book and the Pulitzer Prize-winning March, Geraldine Brooks has demonstrated an ability to transform history into compelling, distinctive fiction. That talent is undiminished in The Secret Chord, a vivid re-creation of the life of King David.
Anyone even passingly familiar with the Hebrew Bible’s account of David’s life in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles knows the highlights: the slaying of Goliath, the unifying of the Israelites after the death of King Saul and his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon. But the achievement of Brooks’ narrative, channeled principally through the perceptive eye and voice of the prophet Natan, is to create a David who is much more than the traditional brave warrior, powerful ruler and singer of psalms.
Marked by fratricide, attempted parricide, bloody hand-to-hand combat and ceaseless political intrigue, the energy of Brooks’ novel rarely flags. “Whatever it takes. What was necessary,” was David’s guiding principle as Natan describes it, and that credo is reflected in both the decisiveness and ruthlessness of Brooks’ character. David’s path to power and his rule were notable for great achievements and great sadness. Especially poignant is the fourfold retribution he endures after Natan, through a parable, forces him to face his duplicity in dispatching Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, to certain death in battle.
One aspect of Brooks’ novel that likely will spark controversy is her frank claim that the deep affection between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, was anything but platonic, and was what Natan calls “a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule.” The biblical evidence supporting this view has been vigorously debated, and Brooks’ assertion hardly will resolve those arguments.
But none of this would matter if Brooks were not so adept at deploying the skills of the novelist to explore the traditional concerns of serious fiction, like character and motivation. She does so in language resonant of biblical diction and imagery, while approaching that time with the benefit of modern psychological insight. The Secret Chord may send some readers back to the biblical account of David’s life, and when they return to it, they will see that story with fresh eyes.