The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

I’m not usually drawn to books like this. Epic tale. Sweeping Biblical history. Prophets. Cataclysmically misjudged sexual encounters. Ok, that last crops up in my reading pile fairly regularly. One of the pleasures of reading through a longlist like the Baileys Prize is that you do try books you’d never have picked up in a million years. Some of them remain a trial, even with your best endeavours. This one, though…

King David. The one with the slingshot facing up to Goliath. With the pretty woman in the bath. And the Leonard Cohen song. (That was a real bonus, fortunately, because it started looping round my head every time I picked my Kindle up: I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord. And so on). Him.

Brooks takes the Old Testament story and retells it through the eyes of Natan the prophet. (Names throughout are not anglicised, so we have, for instance, Shlomo rather than Solomon, Yonatan not Jonathan). In the opening chapters, David’s mighty powers are waning and he risks losing the precarious balance of support that his charisma and leadership have brought him over his rise to power and years of successful kingship. Natan, who joined him after his village and family were ransacked and destroyed by David’s then outlaw band, is the voice through which God communicates with David. Now he’s been given a new task, to talk to the important figures in David’s life and write their memories down as a chronicle of his life.

Unlike most commissions by powerful men, this will be no hagiography. David actively pushes him towards the voices of his detractors as well as his supporters: Natan is sent to his embittered wife Mikhal, his resentful brothers, those who have worked with him out of necessity and self interest rather than conviction or love. What emerges is the picture of a deeply flawed man, a leader with, on one hand, incredible vision and charisma, on the other a blindness to faults which threaten to tear his court apart.

One of the most satisfying results is that the women have a voice, and often show a great deal of influence and wisdom. I found myself searching out references from the original telling, and you may find yourself moved to go and read the whole book of David for yourself. The Secret Chord isn’t an easy read. It doesn’t flinch from the darker corners of history, or sugarcoat death, rape or unconstrained power trips. It is compelling, though, and beautifully written. And it has a hell of a soundtrack.

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