Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ skill at showing the convergence of history and religion through the lives of engrossing characters has endeared readers to her People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing, and her Pulitzer Prize winner, March. Those readers will find a different style in The Secret Chord, a novel chronicling the life of King David. Brooks captures the tone and voice of the Hebrew Bible that documents David’s life and contains his songs (psalms). Thus, The Secret Chord is more like a prose poem or a lament that David or scribes of the times might have penned than it is similar to her previous work. That coupled with her choice of transliterated Hebrew names instead of the more familiar Biblical ones, makes the book disorienting and thus less accessible than her previous works. I found that my knowledge of the stories of David’s life told throughout the Hebrew Bible made it harder to read The Secret Chord than if I’d entered the tale knowing nothing more than the story of David and Goliath. Names like Schlomo (Solomon), Shmuel (Samuel), and Yishai (Jesse) who lived near the Yarden River (River Jordan) or in Beit Lethem (Bethlehem) left me confused as the map of the Holy Lands in my head interfered with my reading. Having to stop reading to determine who the Plishtim (Philistines) were before I could continue, made the novel move more slowly than I anticipated.

The prophet Natan (Nathan) narrates the book and as a fully developed and complex character he shows readers the ancient world where he lives. His insightful thoughts illustrate David's strengths and his weaknesses. Depictions of David’s singing and playing of the harp are also vibrant as in the calling of his play: “a soothing ointment on an open wound, or the binding that sets a broken bone back into its proper place.”

The Secret Chord is vividly awash in bloody battles, conniving brothers, manipulative wives, and raping and pillaging “heroes.” Brooks doesn’t hold back in her battle descriptions.
“at this skirmish we excelled ourselves in our brutality. Half crazed with grief and exhaustion, those whose wives and children had been taken fell on their enemies with a red frenzy. No quarter was given. Corpses were hacked apart, severed heads kicked from man to man till the faces were mashed like ground meat. . . David walked through the piles of defaced corpses, kicking aside body parts, his boots red to the calf, until he came to where the women and children were penned, roped together like beasts and lashed to pickets. He went to Avigail first, and slit the rope that bound her. Then he fell to his knees, his arms around her thighs, weeping. He was sticky with blood and brain matter but she did not regard it.”

Some readers may be surprised at Brooks’ depiction of David and Yonatan (Jonathan) as lovers. Mikal (Michel), Yonatan’s sister and one of David’s wives, notes
“It was as if one soul had been sheared in half, breathed into two separate bodies and then cast adrift in the world, each half longing to find its other. That was how they came together, or so it seemed to me, young girl that I was. I think they became lovers the night after the battle of Wadi Elah. Even though their lives had been different in every respect, they could finish each other’s sentences, they knew each other’s thoughts. I had never seen my brother so light and so alive as he was after David came to us. And that fed my love, also."

Summing it Up: Credit Brooks with the ability to conjure such a work, however, don’t expect it to be accessible or enjoyable. I expect that many who’ve read the narrative of David’s life and his psalms in the Bible will, like me, find little new knowledge and will also find the lush recalling of bloody battles and attacks less than inviting. The reviews are mixed so I’ve included links to several particularly for readers who may enjoy this book more than I did.

Rating: 2 stars 
Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie
Publication date: October 6, 2015
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