Books

Geraldine Brooks
The Secret Chord

Geraldine Brooks saw human catastrophe close-up as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans before turning to fiction. Since then, her remarkable historical novels have immersed readers in, variously, plague-riddled Derbyshire in 1666; Virginia during the American Civil War; Puritan Massachusetts in the 17th century; and, in 2008’s People of the Book, both Sarajevo post-Bosnian war and Seville in 1480. Year of Wonders, the plague story, and the Pulitzer-winning March are sublime, but even her failures are glorious ones, as befits a serious novelist with much to say. 

In The Secret Chord, Brooks takes us back to Old Testament times, to the reign of King David. Her narrator is the prophet Natan, David’s counsellor and seer, and the only one with the courage and foresight to stand up to the charismatic and mercurial king. David is 50, and for his own reasons, he commands Natan to interview the three people who know his origins – his mother, Nizevet, his brother, and his first wife – in order to write his history. The first part of the novel, then, is these three retelling the key parts of David’s life in page after page of distant expositional dialogue and awkward interaction. Here, Nizevet explains David’s childhood to Natan:

I see in your face that you doubt me. You will know why, presently. The older boys took their lead from their father. They treated their youngest brother as if he were an unwelcome stranger. Even Natanel – the closest in age, the kindest of them – ignored him.

And later, Natan thinks:

David’s brothers, by contrast, had enjoyed lesser places at court. Yet in all my time at the king’s side, there had been no hint of enmity. Nizevet seemed to read these thoughts as they passed through my mind. She smiled slightly.

There’s no need for this distant retelling – Natan is psychic, he can see whatever Brooks decides. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the way we only know the historical David from other people’s stories: regardless, it’s flat and didactic and, considering the effort expended to get the whole grinding device in motion, soon forgotten.

Much better is the time we spend with Natan himself. Brooks’s language is lyrical and lush, and filled with perfectly judged detail. Here, Natan looks back on his first vision:

Then I spoke. Later, others had to tell me what I said. I knew that my lips and tongue were moving, but I could not hear my own words because my head was ringing like a stone under the blows of an iron mallet, blows that beat the blood behind my eyes. I stood there, in the crimson-misted ruins of my own life, and the words poured out. Through the red blur, I saw the faces of his fighters distort with wonder.

As to Natan himself, I’m no Bible scholar but to me, he’s wholly contemporary. In her 2011 Boyer Lectures, Brooks countered critics of her anachronistic narrators and protagonists by saying “I urge those people to go and read some [17th-century] court transcripts” and also “I believe that consciousness isn’t shaped by things. You can move the furniture about as much as you like; the emotions of the people in the room will not change.” Accuracy aside, while we learn details about him, Natan never appears complex. Brooks has no room for subversion or delusion: Natan’s a real prophet who speaks the word of the real God. “I have resolved to set down a full account here,” he says, “so I must begin with an honest accounting of myself.” He’s also the book’s moral centre. Other characters are similarly thin placeholders, handicapped by their functional speeches. Only David and his son Shlomo are vivid, but again, perhaps that is Brooks’s intent.

There’s tremendous skill at work here, in making a gripping read from such a well-known story. Brooks soon forgets her elaborate set-up and the second half of The Secret Chord generates real power despite, or perhaps because, the reader knows what’s coming. Those who campaign against violence in literature had best start with the Bible, and Brooks does not flinch. There’s a particularly gruesome rape scene and lots of horrific murders, including that of Natan’s father by David himself, right in front of Natan, aged 10.

Natan is not blind to this side of David: “In my dreams, even now, I hear the screams of the enemy’s stumbling warhorses, after he ordered their tendons cut. I smell the reek from the leaking bowels of the terrified Moavite captives, lined up in rows upon the ground as David’s men ran the measuring cord alongside their squirming bodies … sentencing those beyond the cord’s end to be butchered where they lay.” Violence done for the glory of God is one thing. Natan tries to keep David butchering for the right reasons, but lust and moral weakness soon take over. The vengeance of God inevitably comes, destroying the innocent as well as the guilty.

In her final Boyer lecture, Brooks said, “I believe fiction matters. I know it has power. I know this because the jailers and the despots are always so afraid of it.” She is well known for her humanist world view that saw her awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. The Secret Chord is hugely enjoyable historical fiction, but there’s a consciousness to the message. It’s a mix of soaring brilliance and clunky flaws that derive, I think, not from lack of craft or talent, but from Brooks’s focus on improving her readers.

If Wilde was wrong and there are such things as moral and immoral books, then who’s to say that absorbing novels with a moral (moralistic?) centre are inferior anyway? Flick back to the front page for a moment: we humans definitely need improving. Brooks could well be our very own Natan, wise and compassionate, gently leading us towards the right conclusions. The Secret Chord is a must-read, not only for the parts that are excellent, but also for the parts that are not.  LS

Hachette, 400pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS