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.

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19 thoughts on “The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

  1. I think I have Caleb’s Crossing somewhere and really like the sound of it. Having read your review I’m not certain this would be for me really. All the murder and mayhem puts me off a bit also although I quite like historical books I struggle to imagine the world I’m reading about when the setting is *that* long ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s not one I’d recommend sadly, I find that historical fiction really needs to immerse us into a character(s) that we can follow, regardless of whether we relate or not, we need to at least be somewhat convinced or understanding of their motives.

      This has lots of great narrative, just doesn’t infiltrate the characters in a sufficiently meaningful way.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I am glad I persevered, the first half was defintiely a challenge and I know of others readers who gave up before then, but I was sufficiently intrigued to at least know the story, not least since there are so many paitnings and statues of the man. Though now I just ask myself, why?

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  2. That’s disppointing. It’s some years since I read ‘Year of Wonders’, and ‘March’, but I thoroughly enjoyed both. It sounds as if she’s maybe trying too hard in this one to achieve period authenticity?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve enjoyed all of Brooks novels up until this point and have this on reservation from the library. Knowing the biblical story, I have wondered about the subject matter but was hoping that her narrative skills would find a way through it. When it does finally find its way through from the library I shall approach it with care now.

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  4. I did not read ‘Caleb’s Crossing,’ but I did read ‘People of the Book,’ which I thought was wonderful. I do love the premise of ‘The Secret Chord,’ but since I’m now reading ‘The Dovekeepers’, I may need a break from novels rooted in historical/biblical times.

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  5. Funny how we react differently to books. I loved The Secret Chord for its characterisation, historical detail and brilliant writing. Yes, it was violent, but that seemed to fit in with the times.

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    • Thanks for commenting on your positive experience Sharkell, that will help provide the necessary balance for those who are tempted by the story. It’s why I deliberately left my opinion to the end, we shouldn’t be afraid to indulge a book if it sounds like something we might enjoy, no matter the opinion of others.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Claire, having had my share of ‘lemons’ this year, I can only empathize with you. You did not give up , wrote your honest review and I say bravo. Some books are hard to get through, but hard is not impossible!

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  7. I think the idea of a biblical character as a historical fiction piece is interesting. But as I read on, I realised the book wasn’t working out well for you. Sigh. Always happens right? I hate it when that happens – when i pick book thinking its super interesting and it doesnt work out well for me

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  9. I have Secret Chord on hold at the library and recently enjoyed listening to Caleb’s Crossing. I think I’ll attempt Secret Chord, even though I don’t like reading about violence, because the theme fascinates me. Long ago I read “Queenmaker: A Novel of King David’s Queen”
    by India Edghill. I remember loving it, but not the details.

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