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The story of King David – warts and wonders

The Secret ChordI was sent this as a digital copy for review from the publishers via NetGalley.

I have admired Pulitzer prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks’ writing since discovering her 2001 book The Year of Wonders. In The Secret Chord, she is up against a more challenging task in some ways, and yet perhaps an easier one in others.

This the story of King David, from Ancient – History? Allegorical Writing? The Bible, a Holy Book? Many interpretations might be possible.

My knowledge of David was scant – he became King, and Jesus came from ‘David’s Line’ so, clearly he is part of New Testament as well as Old Testament theology.

He was a psalmist, a musician, as well as a king, and many of the Psalms in the book of Psalms are his. He fathered Solomon, fount of wisdom, and one assumes the creator of another Biblical Book, The Song of Solomon, deeply poetic, and also erotic – the song can be read as physical or as spiritual in praise, and this tradition of praise to a divinity which also has elements which could be seen as erotic is one found in other poems of love to the divine. David was the young boy, of humble birth, who slayed Goliath, with a stone. David and the then king’s son, Jonathan, formed a deep friendship. David, who seems to be courageous, charismatic, devotional, and is perceived as a wise ruler, also coveted and raped Bathsheba, his general’s wife, and sent that general into dangerous battle, where he was killed.

David Cuts off the Head of Goliath by James Tissot, (1836-1902)

David Cuts off the Head of Goliath by James Tissot, (1836-1902)

His almost seems to be an operatic, soap opera story. I found the Bible original, its 1st Book of Samuel Chapter 16 onwards, through the 2nd Book of Samuel and into the second chapter of the Book of Kings, because I was interested to see the source material she had worked from, and from whence a novelist’s imagination, or, even invention, might arise.

To be honest, it’s a fairly bleak and plain telling, and inevitably reads quite drily. (The Biblical telling)  The usual collection of intense smitings and smotings which litters the sometimes sorry history of our species. We do pretty well all of the smitings and the smotings ourselves, without the need of outside agencies, it seems, and utilise those agencies to justify ourselves.

As society becomes more secular (some societies, and I live in one) it perhaps becomes harder to write inside the mind-set of faith base, in a way which can allow readers outside faith to enter into characters and societies for whom it was central, without the reader judging the character as credulous or simple minded.

Brooks does flesh out this rather extraordinary life, and this rather extraordinary world, extremely well. The inevitable parallels to Mary Renault and what she did, particularly in her trilogy about Alexander the Great and the two Theseus books, are not misplaced, though Brooks doesn’t quite manage the hairs up on the back of the neck stuff, the bringing of that long ago time and its mixture of the familiar and the weird, so much into potent reality as Renault does.

David and Bathsheba Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889

David and Bathsheba Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889

Brooks uses a couple of devices in the telling of her story, which a had a slight question mark about. She took the decision to use the original personal and place names ‘in their transliteration from the Hebrew of the Tanakh’ – so this means, instead of the versions bible readers – and more particularly non bible readers who have become familiar with the place and personal names which have passed into popular culture – are concerned. making the necessary connections may not be immediately obvious. For example, it was not until I found the source material that I realised that the Plishtim were the Philistines. I thought this decision, presumably to add a kind of historical authenticity was not helpful. It may be that a glossary will be included with the published, as opposed to the ARC copy. The combination of the archaic namings and the use of various period terms with the need at times, where she wants to show salty and foul language, such as used by soldiers, somehow grated. This is always a problem, people will always have used such language, how to marry the need for immediacy without losing a sense of place and time : the challenge of quaint and old fashioned versus something which wrests the reader out of period.

There are also decisions taken (which may or may not be accurate) but which leave the reader  (or did leave this reader) wondering how much a modern gloss, a modern viewpoint, is an accurate one, and how much we are unable to see, feel, think into other times. The most obvious, here is the relationship between Jonathan and David. We live in a world which is overtly sexualised; thus it becomes almost impossible for deep love by adults, between the same sex, or between the opposite sex, to be seen in any other way than actively sexual, or as a conscious or unconscious sexual repression. We may, or may not be far too knowing now to enter into a different time. So Brooks makes David a man of broad tastes. In which she may be right or she may not. There is no concrete knowing, either way. But this decision did also put me out of an inhabitation of the past, making me realise that, for example, a Victorian writing this story may very well have accepted a loving relationship between two men without sexualisation.

David and Jonathan Cima da Conegliano, 1507

David and Jonathan Cima da Conegliano, 1507

She is not in any way salacious or gratuitous in her writing about sexual content – we never go into the bedroom, she does not need to do this, as she chooses the device of having the whole story told by the prophet Nathan :

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.

Words. Words upon the wind. What will endure, perhaps, is what I have written. If so, it is enough.

Brooks is, as ever, a wonderful story teller, one who makes characters come alive, and one who writes wonderfully.Geraldine Brooks

Going back to the source, she has given rich depth, life and colour to events which were set down and her David is complex, rounded, and as my title suggest, a man full of contradictions, as all humans are.

The Secret Chord Amazon UK
The Secret Chord Amazon USA