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Review: “The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel, an account of the life of King David told by his prophet, Nathan (Natan), takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s beloved and much-covered song, Hallelujah. Although it is a wonderful title on its own merits, after reading the book, it’s not quite a fit for what Brooks seems to be attempting with her slant on the story. In fact, the misaligned title is emblematic of what might be described as a minor, but jarring, lack of focus throughout.

This is a good book – a genuinely intriguing fictionalised biography, not hagiographic, not sanitised, not shy of taking on the difficult themes that any Hebrew Bible/Old Testament-based story will inevitably involve. It stops short of being a great book, though, and I think this is because Brooks takes some particular liberties with the story in prosecuting her central thesis (which I’ll discuss below).

This was, to me, disappointing, given the very successful and unflinching way that she handled another literary character in her earlier novel, March. Then again, March is a less morally ambiguous character in the source text (Little Women) than is David in the books of Samuel, 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. Brooks, whatever her creative license, displays an admirable and consistent commitment to not going outside the bounds of the original character as presented, and there is little to argue with in the notion that David’s life was deeply flawed and problematic even as it was triumphant.

It seems to me that Brooks’ overarching narrative is a fairly straightforward one about the dreary self-replicating nature of violence, and, not tangentially, the fact that women and children suffer a specialised kind of violence in a culture or situation ruled by it. Brooks’ Natan doesn’t resile from describing in excruciating detail the violence committed by David and his troops in war, as well as the sickening violence committed by him and his sons on the women of their own lands and indeed their own family.

That this is a powerful narrative well-supported by the technicolour events of David’s life is not in doubt, but there remains a question-mark, for me, over how well Brooks enters into the notoriously challenging exercise of “getting inside the mindset of ancient people”. The attitudes that she has Natan, and later Batshiva (Bathsheba) express, are discordantly modern in certain senses; the recognition of some kinds of action as violence worthy of the name seems like a jarringly contemporary lens to put on a story that rests on very different value propositions.

Brooks closes the circle (to an extent) with her extrapolated version of David’s childhood, planting the seeds of both his violence and his loveliness in the neglect and abuse that she posits he may have experienced. In her version, David’s brother and mother reluctantly tell Natan of David’s difficult childhood, unloved and rejected by his father.

The story she crafts to explain this is pure Old Testament trickery and weirdness and so, to me, rang very true to the aesthetic Brooks was capturing – it was, for want of a better phrase, very Abram-and-Sarai-esque. Brooks has David’s mother confide that her husband had become obsessed with a young servant girl who looked like a younger version of his wife. David’s mother, fearing for the young girl’s safety and also hurt by being rejected by her husband, sends the servant away, but when her husband angrily recalls the servant with the intention of raping her, she dresses herself as the servant girl and waits in a darkened tent (having first prudently intoxicated her spouse) for him to come. Which he does, brutally; and David, as Brooks’ story goes, was conceived as a result of that traumatic night.

Initially believing that he has been cuckolded, David’s father berates and rejects his youngest son, encouraging his older sons to torment and abuse him. Even when David’s mother, in desperation, confesses her deception and convinces Jesse that he is David’s father, the wounded pride comes out as even greater savagery. It’s a persuasive narrative to explain why such a young child was sent off into the hills to shepherd flocks alone (there’s a suggestion even in the Biblical text that this was not typical, even for the times). Brooks makes it work triple, parlaying it into an explanation for David’s love for King Saul’s son, Jonathan, and his later over-indulgence of his own sons, which came with such catastrophic consequences.

While Brooks pays good attention to David as a musician (hence the secret chord), using that to counterpoint David as Leader, David as Killer and David as Really Very Inadequate Parent and Spouse, she gives only sideways glances at David as the anointed of G-d (or The Name, as she calls it). In some ways this elision works very well; religiosity can be better evoked sometimes by suggestion than by direct description. When it comes to the major events of David’s life, though, the lack of emphasis on faith, and on both David and his people’s conviction of their specialness before G-d, makes it harder for Brooks to really give the shortfalls, and their awful consequences, full weight, or at least the weight that feels appropriate to the time and the story.

A good example is the chain of events that begins with David seeing Batshiva bathing on the roof, probably one of the best-known of all Biblical stories. Brooks makes a brutally convincing argument for seeing what happened next as a rape, with Batshiva unable to resist the will of her king. By representing the story this way, though, Brooks shifts the emphasis from the subsequent murder of Uriah as being the reason for David’s fourfold punishment from G-d, back towards the act of rape itself as being the first and most important sin. (This is further reinforced in her graphic, and frankly triggering, depiction of the rape of David’s daughter Tamar, the second in the series of penalties exacted for the events surrounding Batshiva’s movement from being Uriah’s wife to David’s).

By minimising the relationship between David’s murderous sin and his punishment, and replacing this with an emphasis on the brutal sexual crimes committed against the women of his household, Brooks both gains and loses something from the story. In her version, Ammon’s rape of Tamar, and his subsequent murder by Avsalom, who then in turn usurps the throne, rapes his father’s concubines, and is killed in battle, occurs on a horrific but predictable continuum from David’s love-starved childhood and need to assert his authority and masculinity. This is an interesting story in itself, with strong resonances for a world in which male power is still frequently asserted and prosecuted on the bodies of women, and where male punishment too often occurs by proxy, via crimes against the women with whom they are associated.

What she loses in this representation, though, is the powerful overlay of divine wrath, and the relationship between G-d’s justice and mercy, which is so central to the original story of David (as it is for most key Biblical figures). In Brooks’ vision, David doesn’t build the temple because the pragmatic need to bed down his newly-forged kingdom is too great. His son, Solomon (Schlomo), who doesn’t have to wade through blood to take the throne, gets that privilege and that promise.

This is consistent and logical, yes, but it feels like a not quite adequate way to draw together the threads of what makes David who he is, and what made Israel what it was. Brooks stops at “the secret chord”, and seems to elide the next, crucial phrase: “that David played and pleased the Lord.” At the end of the day, by so strongly emphasising human agency and human frailty, she de-emphasises the role of the divine in shaping the lives of David and his family and their nation, and I think the book is the poorer for it, despite its many strengths.