Review: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks is a rich reinterpretation of the life of King David

SecretChordThe awarding of the Order of Australia to Geraldine Brooks  as part of the national Australia Day celebrations this week was a fitting start to the new year for one of the country’s internationally celebrated authors. She received the OA not just for her writing but also her work as Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation which aims to put books in the hands of indigenous children in remote areas.

The  comes as Brooks enjoys great critical acclaim for her latest book The Secret Chord, a rich reinterpretation of the life of one of the most famous historical characters. If King David were alive today he would be a superstar of the political world. A slayer of giants (real and metaphorical), the second King of the Jews. Admired and feared. A unifier and a divisive force. Modest yet carelessly arrogant. Sympathetic yet cruel. A character who looms large over the foundation period of religious history.

We see David’s life through the eyes of Natan, a prophet and the King’s chronicler. He’s so intricately involved in virtually every aspect of David’s life that he’s the perfect guide too steer the reader through the myriad of vested interests and moral dilemmas, but also so close that he is viewed by many, particularly David’s senior officers, as a middle east Machiavelli.

Geraldine_Brooks-detailBrooks, who was a journalist before becoming a Pulitzer prize winning author of historical fiction, travelled extensively while researching the book and steeped herself in the country (including herding sheep in Israel), She gained  access to myriad scriptural sources including important architectural sites. Her story of David’s life, what she has called “very Game of Thrones”, is more than just the recounting of historical milestones. It is a dexterous weaving together of the defining moments of the charismatic King’s life and the characters who impact on him. People like Shaul, the first King of a united Israel, and Judah, David’s wives Avigail, Mikhal, Batsheva and his son, Shlomo. And there is David, the book taking him from cautious almost diffident early years to old age; magnificent, complicated, tender and terrifyingly cruel.

One of the particular delights of The Secret Chord (the name is taken from David’s prowess with the harp) is the women. Shadows in the actual world they inhabited, Brooks subtly brings them to life with all their anger, thwarted ambition, sense of duty, sacrifice and love.

The Secret Chord is a wonderful read although I have to admit I approached it with a little trepidation. I had never been truly won over by People of the Book despite having enjoyed the earlier March and the later Caleb’s Crossing. Books powerfully evokes the sense of place (there are times when you feel physically surrounded by David’s Israel) and of the polarising transition to nationhood. She deliberately chose to use the original Jewish names of the main characters planting the story firmly in its time (and making the occasional slide into more modern vernacular slightly curious).

 Download the podcast of an interview Brooks did earlier this month with the ABC’s Books and Arts. The Secret Chord is published by Hachette. Other novels by Geraldine Brooks include the People of the BookYear of Wonder,  Caleb’s Crossing and March. Her non-fiction includes the highly praised Nine Parts of Desire written during her time as a  journalist about her experience with muslim women in the Middle East.

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