The phenomenally gifted Geraldine Brooks has returned with her newest novel, The Secret Chord, and, like The People of The Book before it, it’s both magnificent, historically accurate, and often very moving. Her prose is as close to poetry, or prose poetry, as we are likely to see this year. Fascinated by aspects of historical Judaism, in this novel, Brooks recreates the life of King David of Judah (I’m using her transliterations from the Hebrew spellings), who ascends to the throne of Judah at the age of thirty (reminding me that Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt at the age of l8). Using historical texts and The Old Testament itself as her guides (and her research is indeed impeccable), she gives us one of the most famous men in all of Western history as a fully rounded, often moody and impulsive, man, a military genius/leader, who’s known as much for his listening abilities as his leadership of people. The prophet Samuel had priorly selected King Saul to be King of Israel, which then consisted mainly of the tribe of Benyamine; the Hebrew people were a group of tribes, rarely warring against one another, but often prey to attacks by the Phlistm (Philistines), and other groups (so many known from Old Testament accounts). Kings are anointed/chosen by prophets in ancient Hebrew culture. The copper haired David will have many wives, most to seal alliances with other area tribes–and we note with some interest that the idea of revenging bloodlust (which we currently abhore in many Muslim countries) was a constant part of ancient Hebrew life. David’s last, and perhaps second favorite, wife, was the teenaged Batsheva. Wives, then, were expected to bear sons, to carry on a family line–the origins of that are rooted in ancient Israel–and David does have many sons, overindulged brats, abusive of power, all but one….Schlomo……who will eventually be anointed King as David is old; we know him as King Solomon, the wisest of the Hebrew Kings, from whose judicial edicts so much of Western law originates (as well, of course, as The Law as given to Moshe, whom we know as Moses): apparently only about four generations separate Moses from David: what a line of men evolved through this line!
The novel is narrated by the Prophet Nathan, who has prophetic visions; he does not remember what he says, but David considers him his closest advisor. We understand the stern , judgmental Old Testament God much better through Brooks’ novel: His standards of human behavior are very high, particularly for those He chooses to be King, and for those people whom He has chosen. (God, in this novel, is called The Name: I believe that “Yah” , as in Yahweh, does mean Name.) The Name speaks through His prophets (the visionaries sounds much as if they’re having migraine headaches and/or epileptic episodes: note to neurologists).
Brooks chooses to make David’s relationship with his best friend Jonathan, son of King Saul, a homosexual one; she also suggests the commonness of same sex relationships amongst men, particularly the warriors, in this novel (that was also true of Greek military culture): subtle ideology plays through this novel, as Brooks also addresses other contemporary social issues thus, and admirably). I’d entirely forgotten that David played the harp, and apparently beautifully, and had an astonishing singing voice, and his playing of the harp and song are not only amongst the oldest pslams in The Old Testament, but Brooks thus defines one of the earliest known men in all of Western history as the kind of man evolving in The West today: gender studies plays–like gorgeous music–all through this novel, and Brooks makes such choices brilliantly, so that they are simply normal cultural and social mores of the era. One of David’s wives, older than he, is his most trusted advisor, though the role of women in the novel–and in Judaism itself–is narrow; women cook, and they breed sons…….and Brooks’ minces no words in claiming otherwise. The daily lives of Judean Hebrews is aptly rendered, from cooking, men bonding, strictures against marital sex before battles (thus the origin of same with athletes to this day), and she describes the crops, the linens the men and women wear (purple and gold, only for royalty: that’s the origin of that concept): David becomes a fully evolved human man, warts and all , though it’s easy to understand why people follow him.
David’s greatest achievement is the merging of the Benyaminites and the Judeans into one nation: The Old Testament describes this nation building from when Moses leaves Egypt with the former Hebrew slaves through the anointing of David as King of all Israel. Strictures in The Old Testament, now much debated, including not to ‘spill one’s seed upon the ground’ (masturbate), thus clearly means to procreate instead, in order to build a nation: it’s really that simple…..When David, however, basically rapes Batsheva, the wife of one of his great Generals off at war, he will have to pay with four family tragedies, as predicted by Nathan: Moses, too, was not allowed to enter The Land of Milk and Honey (Israel), because he had murdered a man in Egypt: those are the commands of The Name, so that leaders may be seen to be punished for bad acts and deeds by The Name, and we see the origin of the often difficult and judgmental Old Testament God right in these commands. Brooks’ great achievement is to have all these things make complete sense through her novel and her great understanding of the character of a man like David, who was spurned by his own father.
In order to create a capital on the border of the Benyaminites and Judah, King David selects a small city with a great water source, which will become Jerusalem. But he will not be allowed to build The Temple, because of his misdeeds against his general: Brooks lets us see why morals and ethics are at the heart of all Judaism (which, incidentally, is part of what terrified Hitler about Jews). In spite of appalling and tragic attempts at rebellion from his own sons (including the his favorite, Avsalom)–and terrible things do happen to David’s children–as payment for his own crimes–when Ir David, which becomes Jerusalem, is united under King David’s kingship, and The Ark of the Tabernacle (containing The Torah, the first five books of The Old Testament, kept in every temple and synagogue in the world) is brought into the temporary temple in Jerusalem, some of the most gorgeous writing in literature comes from Brook’s mind and hand: her description of King David leaping and dancing and singing as the Tabernacle approaches gives chills to the spine and skin as she creates his ecstacy: such is the power of a symbol, and this most able of kings meets, in a sense, his God through the Ark. I’ve rarely read anything as poetically powerful and gorgeous in all of literature: that section alone is worth reading this novel. I’ve heard music delineating ecstacy, and seen dance which attempts the same, but Brooks’ language alone describes the virtual melding of David’s body and spirit with that of His God in a passage of astonishing beauty by Brooks.
Brooks has written five novels to date, one of which has already won The Pulitzer Prize. The Secret Chord (which refers to David’s harp and playing thereof) is a feat of the highest rank, historically fascinating, describing this most complex of men in his daily life, strengths and weaknesses, and the music and dancing represent what art can be: Brooks wraps all this around her very subtle definition of what it may be to be a man, that great Biblical and Shakespearean and Greek philosophical question. If you read The Sacred Chord, you are in for a huge delight: it’s clearly one of 20l5’s finest novels, and I urge you to try it. It’s a novel of both great achievement, historical accuracy, and the greatest of beauty, subtly interweaving contemporary themes which never club us over the head: we salute you, Grande Petite Madame Brooks.