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The Secret Chord


The Secret Chord

The prophet Natan (Nathan) is given a directive from King David to write the king’s biography by interviewing people who played key roles throughout his life. So begins an incredible journey for Natan, who from the age of eight has been the king’s seer. He visits each of the people on the list, from wives to relatives to those who fought beside him in battles, in order to create a three-dimensional picture of David from shepherd boy to man to powerful king, beloved and chosen by God. Interspersed with these accounts are Natan’s memories and insights, from the time when David and his band were enemies of King Saul to his coronation and, finally, his last breath.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, THE SECRET CHORD draws the reader in with a beautiful writing style and creative premise, but takes literary liberties with David’s character and story that some readers may not appreciate. Missing here is David’s passion for the Lord, the passion that guided him daily, carried him through fear and heartache, and filled him with a joy that spilled forth in song. Still, there is no denying Brooks’ ability to captivate with her outstanding storytelling skills and paint brilliant images with words. Throughout the book, she uses the Hebrew translation of names, which also will be used in this review.

" intriguing novel, bursting with beautiful and brutal imagery, agonizing tragedy, unequivocal joy, fierce loyalty and fiercer betrayal, all woven together with a breathtaking writing style."

Natan begins his task by visiting the first person on the list: David’s mother, Nizevet. However, before she is introduced, we meet his brother, Shammah, who is clearly angry about the visit and has no kind words to say about his famous sibling. The subsequent account, given by David’s mother, paints a picture of his early years, beginning with his conception. She reveals the reason his father and brothers despised him (according to this fictional retelling) and why memories of him still break her heart. Next, Natan visits Mikhal (Michal), daughter of King Shaul (Saul) and David’s first wife. Angry and bitter, Mikhal recounts her love for David when he lived at the palace and her joy at becoming his wife. But it is in Mikhal’s interview that, for the second time, the author paints a picture of David and Mikhal’s brother, Yonatan (Jonathan), as lovers rather than best friends.

“But do you know how he came to me on our wedding night? Hot from my brother, reeking of sweat.” In an earlier paragraph, Mikhal says “He asked me to do things in the dark that recalled my brother to him.”

Those familiar with the story of David may be unsettled by this sharp veer from the Biblical account of David and Yonatan’s friendship. A homosexual relationship seems implausible when considering David’s many wives and children, and his overpowering desire for Batsheva (Bathsheba) that led to his temporary but dramatic fall from grace. This, too, is included in Brooks’ novel. In her telling, however, the infamous coupling is portrayed as a brutal rape, leaving Batsheva bruised for weeks. Again, we see a very different David from the Biblical version.

Natan’s interviews continue, with each one adding layers to the complex story of David’s life and revealing the characteristics that formed a king from a shepherd boy. It is a fascinating journey that brings us into David’s past, then into the drama unfolding in the present and back again.

Reviews of this book will differ greatly, depending on the reader’s familiarity with and/or belief in the Biblical account of King David. Either way, it is an intriguing novel, bursting with beautiful and brutal imagery, agonizing tragedy, unequivocal joy, fierce loyalty and fiercer betrayal, all woven together with a breathtaking writing style.

Reviewed by Susan Miura on October 22, 2015

The Secret Chord
by Geraldine Brooks

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143109766
  • ISBN-13: 9780143109761