The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Secret Chord

In 2012, Geraldine Brook’s wrote a fascinating book Caleb’s Crossing (review here), about Bethia, the fictional daughter of a Minister and two Wôpanâak tribe members, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and Joel Iacoombs, all inhabitants of the 200sqkm island of Noepe, (Martha’s Vineyard). Caleb and Joe were the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College, their story so fascinating, it left this reader wanting to know more about them.

So I was looking forward to Geraldine Brook’s next book, for when she inhabits certain characters, her stories can really carry you away while teaching you something of the historical era they inhabit. And here it is, her next book:

The Secret Chord is an imagined narrative of the biblical figure King David, told mostly from the perspective of a shepherd boy whose father David has had murdered in front of the lad; one who becomes his near constant companion, the prophet Natan. He can foresee the future though isn’t always able to share what he knows will unfold. For this he has few friends, no loves and is a dispassionate observer of events.

‘I have had a great length of days, and been many things. A reluctant warrior. A servant, a counselor. Sometimes, perhaps, his friend. And this, also, have I been: a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes.’

David is the youngest of a large family of brothers, rejected by his father and siblings over a perceived betrayal that occurs between his parents. His father can’t bear the sight of him and banishes him to the hills where he is easier to forget. He is recalled some years later when his Uncle Shaul, calls for all his nephews to appear before him, wishing to identify and anoint the one he believes will become the future King. It is a turning point for young David, as will be his encounter with the giant Goliath.

David_Playing_the_Harp_1670_Jan_de_Bray

David Playing the Harp, 1670 Jan de Bray

Sadly, his early years of solitude don’t prevent him from becoming another seeker of power and prowess through murder, mayhem and the sublimation of women.

Lover of Yonatan, David marries his sister Michal, both children of Shaul. Killed in battle,  the father intervenes and marries his daughter off to another man, David is not yet King, he is exiled for a while during this period, he seems to forget Michal, who eventually falls in love with the man forced upon her and will have children with him, only to be summoned by David when he becomes King, as if she would then welcome him. He is unforgiving when he discovers that is not the case.

There will be many more wives and children, and little tolerance for criticism of his protege, whose lives run unchecked by discipline or ressect. David also errs when he observes the wife of his loyal warrior Uriah the Hittite, Batsheva, and calls for her, thus provoking a prophecy the King uttered himself in response to a tale Natan told him of a man who suffered a grave injustice, trying to illustrate how wrong he had been in his behaviour. Upon hearing the story of a rich man who stole a poor man’s favourite ewe to slaughter and serve to a guest, David shouts:

‘That man deserves to die! Tell me his name! I’ll see to it that he pays for that lamb four times over, because he was greedy and had no pity.’

‘His name?’ I said quietly. ‘You really want to know who he is, that greedy, pitiless man? That man who has everything?’

‘As the Name lives, so do.’

‘That man is you.’

Statue King David by Nicolas Cordier

Statue King David by Nicolas Cordier

And so the four deathly, dishonourable events that follow are seen in that context of retribution for what happened to Uriah. A daughter raped and dishonoured by her older brother, a revenge killing one brother against the other, a banishment and betrayal by the son leading to his death. The sole light in all this darkness being the son born to Batsheva named Shlomo who after a vision of the boy’s promising future, one he keeps to himself, comes under Natan’s protectorate, inheriting none of the destructive qualities of his

I have to admit, I almost put this down after reaching halfway, the first half was so full of battles, murder, horror, the callousness of men who seek power, who kill or appropriate anything and everything they want or which stands in their way, ruthlessly dispatching the innocent, acquiring wives and concubines like commodities, and without the balance that can be created in a narrative that observes things from the perspective of the main character or one of his great loves.

The second half is redeemed through the character of Shlomo, the youngest son, who shares none of the attributes of his siblings or father and to spend time on his story provides the reader a little reprieve from the rest.

Of course there are novels based on history and legend full of violence, however I believe this novel failed for me due to the choice of narrative perspective. It may have been a missed opportunity not to have shown us the perspective from one of the characters who had something to gain or lose, a character who was emotionally invested in an outcome, male or female – a perspective the reader might try to comprehend or empathise with. Rather, we must observe from the outside, through a character who abandoned his own grieving mother to follow the murderer of his father, one who will develop no close relationships, save David. Instead of being enraptured by it, I was just constantly sickened by the history and behaviours of people.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala TreesIjeoma was living with her parents in their yellow painted home surrounded by rose and hibiscus bushes,  immersed in the aroma of orange, guava, cashew and mango trees, in the village of Ojoto, where vendors lined the street and life had a slow, amiable pace when war broke out between Biafra and Nigeria.

She was just eleven years old when this catastrophe struck, provoking a sequence of other catastrophes in their lives, resulting in her being sent away for her own safety for a year, to a neighbouring village to stay with a childless couple.

‘We moved about in that unhurried way of the butterflies, as if the breeze was sweet, as if the sun on our skin was a caress. As if slow paces allowed for the savoring of both. This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.’

The 1967 war barged into their lives and all over everything, the quiescent ambiance of Ojoto replaced by the noise and brutality  of the war machine, armoured cars, bomber planes, men with guns and machetes, war chants disturbing the evening air.

Before the war, her father told candlelit stories, folktales about talking animals and old kingdoms, spoke of kings and queens, magic drums, scheming tortoises and hares.

In the second year of war, her Mama sent her off, when bold talk of Biafra beating Nigeria had dwindled, supplanted by:

‘collective fretting over what would become of us when Nigeria prevailed: Would we be stripped of our homes, and of our lands? Would we be forced into menial servitude? Would we be reduced to living on rationed food? …Would we recover?’

Chinelo Okparanta

Author, Chinelo Okparanta

As a consequence of war, Ijeoma is sent to stay with the grammar school teacher and his wife, in the neighbouring village of Nnewi.

It is here, she crosses paths with Amina, a Hausa girl who follows her home from the shop one day.

‘I found a large rock near where an udala tree stood and sat down there. I waited on the rock, hoping the shadow would continue along, but it did not. Instead, it sat across from me, on another rock, eyes brght, like a pair of light bulbs. She was no longer a shadow.’

Ijeoma is Igbo, but she is far from home and the grammar school teacher and his wife though initially disapproving, become used to her new homeless friend, who helps out and doesn’t cause trouble. They decide she hardly even looks like those they consider the enemy.

“Actually she is more Fulani-looking than Hausa-looking. Which means she could pass for Igbo.”

The grammar school teacher considered his wife’s words. “It’s true,” he said. “Some Igbos and Fulanis do have a certain similarity in their features. Their complexion for one thing.”

“And she appears to be a hard worker.”

Part 2 of the novel displays the changed relationship with her mother after the events of Nnewi. The first week she is back her mother does not speak to her, a week passes without a word between mother and daughter. Her mother then resumes speaking, as if the silence had not been. She informs her daughter that now she is settled in, they will make a schedule, to begin the important work of cleansing her soul. No more folktales or stories of Kings and Queens, her mother’s preferred teachings come straight from the Bible and will be poured into her like medicine.

LEVITICUS 18.

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.

Udala African Star Apple

“Udala” Ibo for white star apple is a feminine symbol of fertility and generosity.

Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is a journey of self discovery, a coming-of-age tale of a girl experiencing a sexual awakening in defiance of her mother’s and society’s expectations, one she half heartedly attempts to suppress, only to experience an even worse suffering. Ancient folklore, biblical interpretations, all is summoned and used by parents to guide the daughter towards the righteous path.

It is a courageous story to tell in modern-day Nigeria, a country that has criminalised same-sex  relationships. It also adds significantly to the growing literary works that use the Biafran conflict as their historical context and brings our attention to an interesting and outspoken literary talent.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie broke the mould in terms of writing about the Biafran conflict with Half of A Yellow Sun and then more recently it was addressed in the autobiographical work of Chinua Achebe There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, the book he published not long before his death, finally speaking out about what has long been considered a taboo subject in Nigeria’s past, one that the generations who lived it had seemed to wish to remain silent on.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Foster by Claire Keegan

Foster‘Early on a Sunday, after first Mass at Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from.’

She wears light, worn clothing and brings nothing with her. The girl is left with the Kinsella family, the father returns to her mother, soon to give birth again. There is no goodbye or word of when he might return. This is Ireland. Remember Nora Webster and all that is unspoken?

So begins Claire Keegan’s long, short story Foster, a vivid telling of the period following a girl being fostered into a family in rural Ireland. In the stranger’s home she finds an atmosphere unlike that which she is used to, one she enjoys and becomes used to, though always there is the presence of that feeling that it might soon all be taken from her.

‘When I follow the woman back inside, I want her to say something, to put my mind at ease. Instead, she clears the table, picks up the sharp knife and stands in the light under the window, washing the blade under the running tap.’

Seen and heard from the perspective of the girl, we learn the circumstances of both families that led to this situation. They fall into a regular routine, life settles in this new family and nothing appears to happen to destroy the ease with which the girl has come to know.

There is a strange atmosphere throughout the book, it is the anticipation of something, we, like the girl, are wondering and waiting for it to happen. For she seems like the pawn on the chess board, her parents on one side having handed her over, the foster parents on the other having received her. Each move, every event that is outside the daily routine, ignites in the girl heightened powers of observation, developing an acute awareness of even the most subtle changes in those around her.

‘Kinsella looks at me and smiles a hard kind of a smile then looks over to the window ledge where a sparrow has come down to perch and readjust her wings. The little bird seems uneasy – as though she can scent the cat, who sometimes sits there. Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind. He toes the leg of a chair and looks over at me.’

Author, Claire Keegan

Author, Claire Keegan

A touching and yet eerie telling of a story that begs to be read and reread, the writing is exquisite in its depiction and ability to create a taut atmosphere without significant plot, it showcases an author with an immense talent for the short story and makes the reader want more.

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer highly regarded for her award-winning short stories, she has published two collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007) which I have read excellent reviews of.

Have you read any of Claire Keegan’s work?