Book review: Geraldine Brooks brilliantly portrays the biblical King David as an all-too-human mix of sacred and profane

The Pulitzer-winning novelist has gone beyond the gilded and sanitised Sunday school story to reveal a man with a lust for life in all its aspects

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 2015, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 September, 2015, 11:05pm

If the Second Iron Age was going to yield its desiccated secrets to any 21st century novelist, then who better than Geraldine Brooks? The US-based, Australian-born foreign correspondent turned author has long been feted for her ability to animate the forgotten corners of history in such bestselling novels as Year of Wonders, People of the Book, Caleb's Crossing and, not least, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 2005, March. But raking over the bones of the biblical King David, a figure hallowed by Jews, Christians and Muslims, as she does in her fifth novel, The Secret Chord, is as ambitious and risky an undertaking as can be imagined.

As Brooks herself declares at the novel's outset, this is a far cry from the gilded, sanitised story of David told in Sunday schools and synagogues. But while its vivid accounts of violence and lust may tax conventional beliefs and mores, it succeeds in reinvigorating this time-worn tale of the young shepherd who slays a giant and fulfils a prophecy by becoming the second king of Israel. It also sifts through the silt of history and myth to give voice to others whose names or deeds are inscribed in ancient texts, yet who remain, at best, shadows.

Narrated by Natan the prophet, who is an old man recalling his years in the service of King David and his travails in writing the king's story - one that now lies complete in scrolls tied and sealed by his own hand in his home, which lies "across the wadi" from Har Moriah, as the Temple Mount is called in Hebrew, and from where he can hear workmen noisily constructing the temple that neither he nor David will live to see.

He had been charged with this task by David, when David was in his 50th year, and when age had "brought only distinction to a beauty that had proved irresistible to men and women alike". After risking the king's ire in insisting he set down his story in all its light and dark, not as just "a safe tale, fit for the ears of the young", Natan had won approval to talk to the people in David's early life in order to set down a true account. Memories of these encounters, together with those of battles and bloody slayings, unspool onto the page with such graphic immediacy and power that even as you recoil, you cannot stop reading.

For Brooks, in the guise of her elderly narrator, has complete mastery of this story of a man "who dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank, rutted without restraint, butchered the innocent, betrayed those most loyal to him …" A man who also "built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unborn".

It is these "dazzling contradictions" of David's character that fascinate Brooks - contradictions that, more than 3,000 years later, still confound, enthral and horrify in unequal measure. In holding the enigma of David up to the scrutiny of our time, it seems entirely apposite that Brooks has chosen in her narrator the very man who, as the Bible tells us, was the only person in Israel allowed to rebuke David in his time. Yet the rewards of reading The Secret Chord don't rely on belief in or extensive prior knowledge of the Bible or the Hebrew Tanakh, where the lost Book of Natan the prophet is mentioned (although Brooks cites these and other scholarly works including Rabbi David Wolpe's recent study David: The Divided Heart as informing The Secret Chord). It has to be said that her decision to use transliterations of personal and place-names - as in Natan for Nathan, Beit Lechem for Bethlehem, Schlomo for Solomon and so on - doesn't make it easy on the reader. Yet, perversely, these ancient names lend an eerie authenticity to her retelling of this ancient tale.

Among those Natan is charged with talking to - and they to him - are David's mother, Nizevet, a name he has never heard before, and his wives Mikal, Avigail and Batsheva, the woman for whom David's lust was so great he committed murder in order to have her. From Mikal he gains confirmation of David's passionate homosexual love affair with her brother Yonaten, or Jonathan, which had already been divulged to him by many others, including David's own brother, the beefy Shammah. This may well be, for conservative Christians at least, the most confronting aspect of The Secret Chord, but it is in keeping with contemporary scholarly works, and in pure storytelling terms is rendered in such a potent context that it is one of the triumphs of the novel. So too are the fictional "voices" of these women, not least that of the embittered, scorned Mikal, who dares question the judgment of the great prophet Shmuel, as well as her faith in David, her husband and anointed king of Israel.

The notion of faith - in God as well as kings - is a recurring theme of the novel, albeit a faith guided by visions and prophecies. Recurring throughout its pages, too, is the notion of storytelling itself, of stitching anew "the cloth of a story that is threadbare with the telling". For what is this biblical tale but a story that has been retold across the centuries and become worn in the telling, yet one that remains, as Brooks reminds us, the oldest story of a man ever told. Her thrall to it owes much to the fact that every emotion, every conceivable desire, every manifestation of ambition in the human canon was experienced by David. Bestowed with preternatural talents, he also committed every transgression known to humankind - and was punished heavily for it in a succession of personal tragedies. Thus his story is the archetypal human story.

Yet so vividly, so cogently, does this novel inhabit an age of tribal warfare and blood revenge that what lingers most, long after reading, is the subtle way it probes questions of power and those who wield it. Natan himself was 10 years old when he first encountered David, who - banished by King Shaul, and living as the outlaw son of Yishai, or Jesse - had slaughtered Natan's family and taken the boy into his service. David's explanatory words: whatever it takes. What was necessary continued to haunt him into his old age, along with the deaths of myriad others. Even now, in what may be his last summer, he cannot shake off their implication - or the lingering "stench of charred bone … the stink of rot and vomit, shit and sweat".

Brooks excels in conveying the raw, visceral brutality of war and blood revenge along with the grasping, calculating nature of those who crave or wield power - not surprising, given her experiences as a war correspondent. But what sets this novel apart is the nigh-on transcendent way she renders the fabled musical gifts of David, "the sweet singer of Israel", who could "bring tears to the cheeks of seasoned warriors" with his voice, soothe violent spirits with his harp playing, and who left behind compositions "of perfect fifths stacked one atop the other, like the confident edifices of a powerful and joyous king".

For music and violence, poetry and blood, beauty and horror are seamed together in this inspired narrative in a way that echoes the age-old enigma at its core: that of being human.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Little, Brown)