The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 2015, 290 pp
This was a reading group pick, suggested by me. I have read every one of Geraldine Brooks's novels and she always does something unique. The Secret Chord is historical fiction about the life of King David, one of the most well-known figures in the Old Testament. For me, who was raised with a heavily Christian influence, David loomed large because Jesus Christ is considered by prophecy and history to have been descended from the House of David.
Despite which, I knew very little about him. I have tried many times to read the Old Testament only to be defeated by the long genealogical lists in the early books. In preparation for reading this novel, I did plow through the First Book of the Chronicles. I skimmed much of the genealogy but actually got a pretty good account of how David became the King of the Jews and re-established them in Jerusalem. However, it took Geraldine Brooks to bring the story to life.
Those were extremely violent times! I am getting the idea through my reading that the Middle East has mostly been a violent area since time immemorial and truly do not see much hope that it will change. Since it is supposed to be the birthplace of humanity, it looks to me that war and violence are in our DNA.
So, the book. I liked it. Through the narration of David's prophet Nathan, she presents the King as a deeply flawed character whose tragic childhood and successful life as a warrior made him a man who craved power but had some difficulty handling all the adulation he received.
I suppose that for any person who believes in and tries to follow the commandments of God, it is personal weaknesses and character flaws that make such obedience difficult. In the Old Testament God is seen as jealous and vengeful, so in my view God was also flawed.
Then there are the women. David had numerous wives, some of whom he loved, some he married for political reasons, and all of whom were meant to provide an heir and successor. Brooks paints him as a heartbreaker and a sometimes cruel husband whose powerful life force spilled over into lust and womanizing. Right up there with Henry VIII he was. I was left thinking that in fact women have achieved the most change in history as far as taking charge of our own existence and being a force for peace, justice, and balance in the world.
Obviously, as suggested by the title, there is music. In fact, that title is taken from Leonard's song, Hallelujah.
"Well, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord."
Brooks makes much of David's genius as a musician, his hours of harp playing, composing songs and Psalms. She has his prophet and spiritual guide say:
"I think that few grasp the connection between waging war and making music, but in the long evenings when firelight flickered on cave walls and the voices joined and rose with his, I learned the unity between the two...
You cannot harmonize in song or play instruments together without listening one to the other, sensing when to be loud and when soft, when to take the lead and when to yield it."
As fascinating and complex a character as David was, his seer was equally so. I first came across the role of a King's seer in Nicola Griffith's amazing Hild. They see things, have visions and in David's case can be considered the voice of God. The visions and words of God came to and through Nathan without his volition, giving him headaches and other ills, but because Nathan was almost always right David counts on him and mostly does what he says. The seer role calls for much finesse and judgement and since Nathan is the narrator of this tale, you get to experience the tensions and burdens that go along with the role.
Finally, the man who was King David did produce an heir who brought about wisdom and a less violent era for the Jews. He was King Solomon and Nathan was his tutor.
(The Secret Chord is available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)