Monday, November 9, 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
Published October 2015 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: Netgalley courtesy of the publisher

Publisher's Summary:
Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected. We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age.

My Thoughts:
"Now I hear there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord"
In 2006, Geraldine Brooks' son took up the harp, which brought to Brooks' mind the stories of King David whom the Bible tells us was famed for his harp playing. Five years later, at her son's bar mitzvah, Brooks' heard him play an arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." The result of that inspiration is her interpretation of David's life, "the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age."

In historical fiction, writers walk a fine line between the known and the creative. Where there is a lot already known, where a writer feels compelled to stick to those details and work their story in around them, it takes some effort to tell the story from a new angle. I thought that's exactly what Brooks had found when the book started. When David commissions Natan to write his life's story, the journey begins with David's mother and I thought perhaps David's story was going to be told through the eyes of the many women in his life. While the women certainly played a major role in the book (much more so than they do in the Bible), the focus of the book, beyond that initial interview was definitively masculine - kings, princes, generals, wars and rape - when the story became more a recounting of David's life as seen through Natan's eyes.

Even though I knew there'd be a lot of fighting and war, it wasn't what I was expecting or hoping for. I really wanted a more intimate story, a story more focused on David as a man and less as a warrior.

Still, it's Geraldine Brooks so there's much to be said for The Secret Chord. No doubt Brooks can bring history to life and she's a master of description (although I could have done without less description during some of those battles scenes!). There are some really interesting relationships (particularly between David and several of his wives, as well as his relationship with one of his rival's sons) and, in Brooks' hands, David becomes much more than just a glorious hero who played a giant and united a kingdom.


  1. I've got this down on my Kindle. Thanks for this review.

  2. The synopsis of this book did absolutely nothing for me, so I never considered picking up a copy - even though I think Brooks' Year of Wonders is probably one of the historical fiction novels I have ever read. Your review makes me rethink that decision though. I may have to check it out in greater detail after all. Thanks for a great review!

  3. Hmmm, I really want to read this one, and I mostly like Brooks (although I still insist she botched the ending of Year of Wonders) and you're right, a fresh angle on a historical personage is required for this to rise above the baggage. I'm disappointed to hear about the emphasis on fighting, but I suppose that is a critical part of the story. I think I'll still read it--thanks for the thoughtful review.

    I love how "Hallelujah" inspired Brooks to write this book--I know someone would be inspired to do so! Such a great song.