Monday, January 9, 2017

The Secret Chord - Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord
Title: The Secret Chord
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publication Date: 10/6/15
Pages: 302
Genre: Historical / Fiction
How I Found It: I really enjoy Brooks' writing.
Date Completed: 12/21//16

Summary: A fictional look at the life of Israel's King David, told from the perspective of the prophet Nathan.

What I Thought: I have been a fan of Brooks' writing ever since I read Year of Wonders for a grad school class. She as a way with words and characters and I enjoy her tone. I am slowly working my way through her body of work. 

The Secret Chord seemed a natural next step for me. It reflects on the life of King David, an important figure in both the Jewish and Christian faiths. As with The Red Tent, I went into this book expecting exactly what it is: a fictional representation of events I believe really happened. We don't know all the details. This is speculation, as is any historical fiction. If you can accept that premise, I think this book is a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

The story is told from the perspective of the prophet Nathan, or Natan, as he is called here (Brooks reverted most names away from traditional English transliterations). At first, I was startled that Brooks chose him as narrator, but ultimately I liked his voice. She added significantly to his story to make him present for more of David's, but having a his relatively neutral outside perspective gave balance to the story.

More than anything, Brooks paints David as painfully human. He is very flawed, as are we all, and Natan wrestles quite a bit with how such a man could be God's chosen ruler. I think it's a thought most of us who have read David's story have also wondered at some point or another. Natan celebrates David's good moments, of course; he particularly admires the King's faith and his charisma. His violence and sexual appetites, however, Brooks uses to show his fallibility. 

Reading the Biblical account of David's life, it's clear both of these plagued him. After all, the second most famous story about him (after David and Goliath, of course) recounts him sleeping with another man's wife, Batsheva, and then having the man killed when Batsheva turns up pregnant. It's a brutal, selfish act and one for which David paid dearly. I was most impressed, however, with how Brooks presented Batsheva as a victim. She covers the classic arguments - that Batsheva was tempting the king by bathing on her roof or that she could have said no - and dismisses them easily. Instead of being portrayed as a sinful seducer as has been often done in the millennia since, Batsheva is shown as a rape victim. In reality, that is likely what she was and it is heartbreaking, especially since Brooks makes her practically a girl at the time of David's act. 

Brooks also spends a decent amount of time with Mikhail and Avigail, two of David's other prominent wives. The story focuses on David, of course, but I greatly appreciated Brooks spending so much time with these women. Their stories are often washed up in his and I thought she did a nice job exploring what their emotions and experiences may have been like in the face of his power, persistence, and personality. 

There were some things I did not love - as to be expected in a fictional representation of faith-based events. Brooks makes the relationship between David and Jonathan more than friendship; this is certainly historically possible, but I don't think it had to be added. Love does not always have to be sexual. Natan's prophesies and the influence of The Name (God) are not always given the level of credence I would have liked. They are highly revered by all of the characters, but at times they are confusing and sometimes seem on par with other religious beliefs of the time. Upon reflection, though, I think this is likely an extremely accurate portrayal. After all, no matter the era, there have always been people who believe different things and anyone speaking with the voice of God would have been viewed with intense scrutiny and awe - particularly in an era rife with superstitions. 

This book was a good reminder for me of the very human nature of Biblical figures. We talk about them so much in church and we use their lives as Sunday School anecdotes and coloring pages for children. Yet, if you believe, they were real people with real faults, real fears, and real struggles. They were not so different from us. Yet, God worked in them and through them, sometimes to great and terrible ends. Brooks' novel makes them tangible and relatable. Her work resonates with the thought that if God could be amongst these people, He could be working in spite of our flaws as well. That's an encouraging thought.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Will I Re-Read: I don't think so.
Other Books By Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders / People of the Book / March

A Reduced Review: This fictional look at the life of King David requires some room for narrative license, but the fresh angle 

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