The Secret Chord
Reviewed by Joan Dyer Liversidge
By Geraldine Brooks. Viking, 2015. 302 pages. $27.95/hardcover; $16/paperback; $13.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
In Geraldine Brooks’s midrash of the story of King David, she dares to “confront the King” through her narrator Natan (Nathan), his trusted advisor, friend, and prophet. Her story follows closely the very brief scriptural references to King David’s life from boyhood to his death, with additions from the author’s imagination that add depth, intrigue, and richness. Brooks gives us a fuller picture of David by filling in the gaps in scripture. This brings David and those close to him to life. How do they feel? What are they thinking? What are their joys and sorrows? These are questions I frequently have had when I read scriptural references to David.
Brooks developed her interest and then began her research of David when her son expressed a desire to play the harp. There are few male models for this. She was inspired to look more deeply into King David, a man who loved God and was also known for his talents as a poet, singer, and harpist. Ten years later, after visits to the Holy Land with her son, she published The Secret Chord. My husband and I attended her book discussion and signing at Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda, Md., in the fall of 2015, where she described her own personal journey over ten years of research and writing.
At Sidwell, Brooks was asked about the need for the level of violence in the story. Brooks acknowledged how difficult it is to understand that level of violence. She noted, however, that the events depicted in her book were based on research of King David’s world in 1000 B.C.E. It was sobering to be reminded of the level of violence that was common and acceptable in this era, as well as the belief that some of it was Divinely sanctioned. The questioner from the audience was actually Brooks’s husband, journalist and writer Tony Horwitz, a graduate of Sidwell Friends.
Brooks herself converted to Judaism at the time of her marriage, or was “convinced,” as we Friends might say. She has immersed herself in a study of Judaism, and readers benefit from her own faith journey as well as her extraordinary ability to tell a story.
In The Secret Chord, she also retells Bathsheba’s story, opening up new perspectives on her role in the House of David. Other women in David’s and Natan’s life are given major roles, and we are invited to join her in imagining their deepest thoughts, feelings, joys, and sorrows.
Brooks reveals clearly to the reader David’s humanity: his flaws, gifts, love of God, and longing to please God. He wants to please God, but the influences from his culture, his history, and his biology, overcome him and he often fails. His deep remorse was frequently expressed in a petition to God, as in Psalm 38:
I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin.
Many are those who are my vigorous enemies;
those who hate me without reason are numerous.
Those who repay my good with evil
slander me when I pursue what is good.
O Lord, do not forsake me; be not far from me, O my God.
Come quickly to help me, O Lord my Saviour.
Brooks also draws attention to David’s love for Jonathan (Yonatan). She gives some depth to this relationship described in 2 Samuel (“your love was more wonderful to me than the love of women”) through Natan’s description of David’s gift of singing as he mourns the death of Jonathan. She paints a word picture that captured my imagination: “that bright flare of shimmering gold. It could transmit light and warmth . . . the voice could summon such a power that it recalled not sunlight but lightning.”
Most of us know King David through the 73 Psalms that he wrote and sang, accompanied by the harp. Through Brooks’s retelling of King David’s story, I was drawn to other scriptural accounts. I was also led to engage with a local rabbi to hear his views on both the book and King David’s story. Brooks brought me to a deeper understanding of David and to new perspectives on the women in his life. My own “with God” experience has been enriched.