Natan, the Hebrew prophet who narrates Geraldine Brooks' latest historical novel, "The Secret Chord," is tasked with telling his master, King David, the blessings and the curses that await him. War, death, greed and betrayal mean that not all news is good for the biblical king — and much of the bad he brings on himself. Yet thanks to Brooks, David is as compelling as he is contradictory, with the writing in "The Secret Chord" as lyrical as the lyre that David plays.
"The Secret Chord" does not have the pace of Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning "March." Long, languid sentences make the story feel like more of a meander than a jog. But similar to "March" and Brooks' three other bestselling novels — "Caleb's Crossing," "People of the Book" and "Year of Wonders" — this new novel is rich and imaginative. It also brings a little-known person and place — ancient Judah in Israel — to vivid life.
The book traces the life of the Old Testament's David from shepherd to soldier to beloved king to murderous tyrant. Jewish, Christian and Islamic histories say he was a prophet and poet, responsible for composing much of the Bible's Book of Psalms and living roughly 1,000 years before Christ was born.
Despite the number of years between David's life and ours, Brooks ensures that he is in no way ancient or outdated. Through Natan and the voices of David's wives, soldiers, children, enemies and even his own conscience, Brooks crafts a person with fears and conflicts no different from those experienced by many of us today. We feel his desires and understand his mistakes.
Brooks' decision to use traditional Hebrew names (Shaul instead of Saul, Shmuel instead of Samuel) can make the text challenging at times. But the emotional intensity of David — a man who, according to Brooks' Afterword, "left little trace" — makes up for slow spots in the narrative.
In Brooks' eyes, King David was a man of passions and extremes, as dangerous as he was devoted. And throughout "The Secret Chord," his impulses, pride and compassion become palpable experiences.
Brooks said the idea for the novel came in 2006, when her son, then 8, "made the unusual decision to learn the harp, which started me reflecting on that other long-ago boy harpist." The Bible's Book of Samuel says that when David played the harp, those around him would forget their troubles and feel happiness. Brooks has written a book to do the same.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.