There’s something bordering on the supernatural about Geraldine Brooks. The author of historical novels including “Caleb’s Crossing” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “March,” she seems able to transport herself back to earlier periods, to time travel. Sometimes, reading her work, she draws you so thoroughly into another era that you swear she’s actually lived in it. With sensory acuity and a deep and complex understanding of emotional states, she conjures up the way we lived then.
Her new novel, “The Secret Chord,” further arouses suspicion of such magical powers. The book gets its title from a contemporary song, Leonard Cohen’s majestic “Hallelujah,” but it takes place in King David’s Second Iron Age, all of which Brooks brings to life with her customary mix of telling detail and broad landscape. From the texture of wool tunics, the fragility of clay tablets, and the easy grazing of goats to the outsized pride of the men, the unquestioned subjugation of women, and the hot brutality of the nonstop battles, Brooks’s vision of the biblical world is enrapturing.
Her focus is David and his journey from neglected boy shepherd to bandit to vital hero to “dried and dull” elder. Brooks brings in some of the famous Old Testament stories — David and Goliath, natch — but she fills in copiously between them. Despite that the Bible tells us so little about David’s personal life, she manages to render a plausible man. Her narrative conceit is a shrewd nod to the lack of facts about her subject: David’s story is told through his seer, Natan, who bases it largely on the stories he’s told by those close to the king. The novel is a blend of subjective takes, with no pretense of objectivity. (By the way, Brooks uses Hebrew transliterations of names rather than the common versions — Shaul for Saul, for example, and Yonatan for Jonathan.)
David, with amber eyes and copper hair, is full of contradictions. At times he is noble and brave, a loving husband; at others he is petty, vain, callous, and cruel, as when he steals another’s wife. One constant, though, is that he is a brilliant warrior: “Every memory I had of him was a view from behind,” Natan says. “Simply because at the deadly moment, he was always in the forefront.” Brooks wrote of brutal Civil War combat in “March,” but that pales compared to the unsettling butchery in “The Secret Chord.” There’s a visual “Game of Thrones”-like quality to the fighting, such as Natan’s killing of a spearman with his dagger. “I felt the warm wetness of his insides closing about my fist,” he says. “It was intimate as a rape.”
David is also an extraordinary musician, as Natan points out repeatedly and somewhat breathlessly. At one point, the young David plays his harp for Shaul and helps to ease the fading king’s madness. “[A]fter so many years of hearing him play almost every day,” Natan says, “it remains a marvel, that a man can draw forth such sounds from a piece of wood and some strands of gut.” David’s singing voice was a “bright flare of shimmering gold,” Natan says. “It could transmit light and warmth.” Within the tireless warrior, we see, outward signs of the soul of an artist.
One of Brooks’s bolder twists in “The Secret Chord” is to make David bisexual. He’s married to Shaul’s daughter, Mikhal, for whom he needed to pay Shaul with the foreskins of 100 dead Plishtim, or Philistines. (With his usual confidence, David paid 200.) But his true love was for Mikhal’s brother Yonatan, which Mikhal is fully aware of. “When we made love, he made no pretense,” Mikhal tells Natan about David. “He asked me to do things in the dark that recalled my brother to him.” At one point, Natan spies Yonatan and David in the middle of a powerful kiss, “like lightening reaching from sky to earth.”
Alas, there are drawbacks to the way Brooks has her storyteller recounting his own stories and dropping in those of others. The style creates a frustrating sense of narrative disconnection for much of the novel, as vignettes about David emerge as discrete pieces with no connective tissue. David’s mother, Nizevet, recounts how David was shunned by his father. David’s brother Shammah, filled with contempt, describes an unmythologized version of David’s clash with Goliath. They are compelling tales, but randomly told, and they can leave the reader feeling scrambled and a bit lost in time.
Brooks has humanized the king and cleverly added a modern perspective to our understanding of him. But as a sustained chronicle, “The Secret Chord” is wanting.
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking, 302 pp., $27.95
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.