Two kinds of readers might exult over Geraldine Brooks’s biblical epic about the life of King David, The Secret Chord. The first can cite chapter and verse of the Good Book. The second craves the resonance of the best historical fiction. Both will relish this new novel, which brings alive the Old Testament world of a thousand years before the Christian era.
An Ancient Hero. The story is narrated by Natan, a prophet better known today under the name Nathan. Brooks initially unsettled me with her name spellings from the Hebrew — we read of Shaul rather than Saul, and Shlomo rather than Solomon — but in the end the effect is to intensify the historical flavor.
Brooks employs a regal, rolling style for the words that she puts into Natan’s mouth, describing David. “A man who dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank, rutted without restraint, butchered the innocent, betrayed those most loyal to him.”
Natan has been assigned by David himself to write the chronicle of his life, and this book, so goes the conceit, is the result. It’s a tall order to breathe life into such a human being, and Geraldine Brooks manages it admirably. “David must have actually existed,” she explains in an afterword, “for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.”
And David is flawed: The subject-chronicler relationship gets off to a violently rocky start when the future king, at that point a desert marauder, sacks Natan’s village, slaughters his father, then abducts the ten-year old boy. Natan winds up a faithful servant nonetheless. He spouts prophecies that give him headaches and fainting spells. His first vision promises David a throne and an empire — a good enough reason for the lion-cloaked young man to take the boy on.