The Secret Chord

By Geraldine Brooks

(Penguin Publishing Group, $27.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in Australia, now living on Martha’s Vineyard, married to journalist and author Tony Horwitz and solidly grounded by her own journalism background, Geraldine Brooks has published four earlier novels, which together have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. Her imaginative novel about the father from Little Women, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Caleb’s Crossing won the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Christianity Today Book Award. People of the Book, and Year of Wonders were also bestsellers. Her nonfiction includes Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.

What is this book about?

One of the Bible’s most fascinating figures is David, slayer of giants, shepherd, soldier, beloved king and feared despot. Brooks here recreates King David’s life as seen by those closest to him, including Natan the prophet ,wives Mikal, Avigail and Batsheva and Solomon, his son. Mixing history with myth and using spellings typical of the times, she draws a remarkably complete portrait of this very complex man, known equally for the brutality of his war-making and the lyrical beauty of the psalms he wrote. Brooks has a deep interest in religious history and here has found a subject eminently worthy of her attention.

Why you’ll like it:

I once interviewed Brooks for a Courant article and was impressed with her deep knowledge of history, which I expected given her choice of subjects, and her wry sense of humor, which was a pleasant surprise. She is a deep and thorough researcher, traits crucial to writing impressive historical fiction about a figure that readers think – perhaps erroneously – they already know well. Brilliant book of this kind illuminate the past in a way that scholarly but often dry nonfiction simply cannot do. Even those who have studied the Bible for years may find new and startling insights in The Secret Chord.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review, Alana Newhouse writes: “There is nothing new under the sun, the author of Ecclesiastes emphatically noted: All inventions are reinventions, all new stories merely fresh costuming for age-old tales. It isn’t for me to argue with Scripture, but I will say that Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, The Secret Chord—a thundering, gritty, emotionally devastating reconsideration of the story of King David—makes a masterly case for the generative power of retelling…Some of the magic here has to do with the setting and time—for sensory dramatics, it’s hard to compete with the Iron Age Middle East…but [Brooks's] real accomplishment is that she also enables readers to feel the spirit of the place. What she has drawn in The Secret Chord is a world in which the opposite of pragmatism is poetry, where the opposite of rational isn’t irrational but romantic. And so, choices—whether about love or matters of state—are made not between good and evil but between often equally meaningful life forces, with the trick being to determine which one is better suited to the moment at hand. This kind of decision-making seems to belong to another realm entirely until you understand that it’s true of our lives as well.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Brooks’ interest in religious commitment accrues rich rewards in this ambitious and psychologically astute novel about the harp-playing, psalm-singing King David of the bible. A man of contradictory impulses, David was also a brutal and pitiless warrior living in “a culture of blood revenge.” In his younger years he was an outlaw and renegade, a raider and marauder. He was greedy, vain, intemperate, stubborn, and ruthlessly pragmatic. He loved his wives, however (at least most of them), and doted on his sons and daughter. His outstanding achievement was to unite the tribes of Judah and Israel to establish the first Hebrew kingdom. Brooks develops David’s complex personality and the bloody events of his tumultuous times through the narration of his prophet, Natan, of whom there is a tantalizing mention in the Bible (Chronicles). This format allows Natan to speak with various members of David’s family, his generals and soldiers, and even his enemies. Central to the narrative are a prediction and a curse. Through Natan, God (always called “the Name”) first promises David a throne, an empire, and a line of descendants. Later Natan foretells tragedy; David “will be scalded by the consequences of his choices” and will pay for the deaths he has caused “four times over.” These tragic events provide plenty of melodrama and considerable suspense. While most of the plot is fictional conjecture, Brooks evokes time and place with keenly drawn detail. Although her decision to use archaic language, including the Hebrew spelling of names (Solomon is Shlomo; Bethlehem is Beit Lethem; the Philistines are the Plishtim) sometimes slows the narrative, she compensates with the verve of an adroit storyteller.”

“In her gorgeously written novel of ambition, courage, retribution, and triumph, Brooks imagines the life and character of King David in all his complexity. . .The language, clear and precise throughout, turns soaringly poetic when describing music or the glory of David’s city. . .taken as a whole, the novel feels simultaneously ancient, accessible, and timeless,” says  ALA Booklist.

Library Journal says: “The Pulitzer Prize-winning author retells the story of the biblical giant slayer King David through the eyes of those around him: the prophet Natan, David’s wives, and Solomon, his son. Brooks takes her title from the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” (“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord”) and skillfully reimagines this well-known tale.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “He was big enough, but no giant.” With that gently dismissive allowance, spoken by the biblical King David, continues to explore the meaning of faith and religion in ordinary life. And sometimes extraordinary life, too, for even David has to admit that it’s not every day one has to fight a Philistine hero. Goliath’s fatal error was that he underestimated David, who tells a young shepherd, “Sometimes, it is good to be small.” David’s God is most definitely the one of the Old Testament, the jealous and punitive one; as leader of his tribe, David’s hands are covered in blood, including that of the family of the shepherd boy. Brooks skillfully retells David’s story through the eyes of Natan, the shepherd, who plays numerous roles throughout the narrative; as Avigail, David’s knowing wife, tells him, “David will call for you often enough, be assured of it. He uses every tool that comes into his hand.” There’s plenty of action, some biblically bloodthirsty; there’s plenty of talk as well, including some psychologizing that rings a touch anachronistic (says Avigail, for instance, “I’ve come to understand that he is what he is because of his faults”). David emerges from Brooks’ pages as a complex, somewhat wounded man, dogged by trauma but mostly resolute all the same; in one of the most telling passages, Brooks imagines David eating a chicken leg calmly just after the death of a baby, reasoning, “Now he’s dead, why should I fast? Can fasting bring him back again?” Of just as much interest as her view of the politically astute lion in winter are Brooks’ portraits of characters who are somewhat thinly fleshed in their biblical accounts, such as Batsheva, Yoav, Avner, and even Avshalom—for, as Brooks sagely writes, “David, who so often saw so clearly, who weighed men to a fine grain, was utterly blind to the failings of the men he begat.” A skillful reimagining of stories already well-known to any well-versed reader of the Bible gracefully and intelligently told.”

When is it available?

This new telling of age-old stories is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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