Geraldine Brooks has a knack for bringing past times, even ancient times, to vivid life in relatively few pages. In People of the Book she traced the fictionalized history of a famous (real) Jewish haggadah through the centuries, bringing each successive time period into sharp focus. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning March she trained her high-definition imagination on the American Civil War period. With The Secret Chord, now in paperback, she turns the delicate pages of truly ancient times, expanding the Biblical stories of Israel’s King David into a richly imagined, painfully plausible saga of violence and love, prophecy and faith.
Brooks chose her narrator wisely. Natan (Nathan) was a prophet in David’s court who figured prominently in major events, heralding David as the genesis of a line of kings of Israel and the Hebrews’ establishment in the land, later presiding over the anointing of Shlomo as David’s successor. (Brooks renders names of people and places in transliterations from the biblical Hebrew: Shlomo, not Solomon; Batsheva, not Bathsheba.)
Importantly for the novelist’s purpose, Natan was also involved in the ugliest part of the biblical account of David’s life: the lustful king’s arranging for the death in battle of Uriah the Hittite so that he could make off with Uriah’s beautiful wife Batsheva.
Equally important, Chronicles tells us that Natan wrote firsthand histories of the “acts” of both David and Solomon. Those texts haven’t come down to us, an ideal opening for an ambitious historical novelist.
Brooks not only creates a plausible backstory for Natan, but describes in convincing detail his experience of the prophetic fugue state – dissociative, yet physically painful – through which the God of Israel, here called simply the Name, speaks. Meanwhile, her David is a Machiavellian prince full of contradictions: a wise ruler, and a user and abuser of men and women; a man capable of love and devotion (especially toward Yonatan, the real love of his life, and toward his sons), and of cruelty (toward more than one of his wives); a gifted musician and poet, and a ruthless warrior; a devout man of faith and proud father who smiles indulgently at his sons’ corrupt behavior.
David’s oversized personality is more told than shown, though. Natan calls him “a blur of fervent energy, the keen center of every conversation, the source of generous gesture, insight, wit,” and tells us
how David drew men to him and made them his…He learned which man enjoyed a ribald jest and which of them disapproved of bawdiness, and tailored his words accordingly. It was not that he played false in this. He had both elements in his nature, both the coarse and the refined. He could be a predator at noonday and a poet at dusk.
But we are mostly left to trust Natan on that. Though the story never failed to keep me turning pages, I wished for scenes that would show David’s magnetism in a more present and extended way; we see him often in his soft modes and in pain, on the battlefield and at court, but still I left with an image of him as something more than human, both in his virtues and his flaws.
The novel does a great service by giving strong personalities to the women of the story, who in the biblical texts are mostly merely wives, pawns, and victims. And the richness of the flowing prose matches Brooks’s heightened imaginative powers. Indeed, a passage about a mute animal gives us much insight into Natan’s spirit. As a soldier reports back from a deadly battle against David’s rebellious son Avshalom, Natan gets into the head of the mule on which the traitorous young man tried to escape:
I could feel the mule’s resistance to Avshalom’s cruel boots digging into her bruised sides, and his hard hand, wrenching the bit in her mouth. I felt the pounding of the beast’s generous heart, pressed beyond endurance. I was seeing as she saw, in great wide arcs on either side, but nothing at all straight in front of me. I felt her raw fear of the shifting light and shadow as she plunged forward into the trees. The assault of scent was overwhelming – the stink of blood, the fear stench coming from the man on my back.
Through the lens of Natan’s experience we get a close and tender look at the wise-beyond-his-years boy Shlomo; at David’s bitter first wife Mikhal, daughter of his predecessor Shaul (Saul); at many other personages who in the Bible are merely names and deeds; and, most impressively, at the whole tapestry of a long-gone society that was, in Brooks’s telling, violent and cruel but also artistic and humanistic, as open to humankind’s full potential as any in history.