The Secret Chord fleshes out the David I learned about as a child: the young boy who outmaneuvered a giant with a stone and a sling shot; the boy anointed as King, earning him the enmity of the presiding King Saul; a young shepherd who fought off lions and bears to protect his sheep. Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel retells King David’s rise and fall, re-imagining his story with drama, detail and storytelling power.
The legend of King David is well known to anyone who attended Sunday School or has some insight into biblical history. I use the word legend because outside biblical records, there is little historical evidence of David’s existence. According to the Jewish Virtual Library: “…the most that can be said is that there was probably an Israelite ruler called David, who made Jerusalem his capital sometime in the tenth century BCE”. Through an impressive combination of research and imagination, Brooks has painted a vivid and startling portrait of this legendary figure, highlighting his fears and dreams, flaws and strengths, successes and failures. She presents a man of contrasts: a lover of music, words, beauty and art and a brutal fighter who betrays and is betrayed. In turn, she cleverly evokes the emotional complexity and atmosphere of the Second Iron Age (about 1000BC), using rich description and insightful historical detail.
Her poetic prose pays homage to David’s own love of poetry, music and song (seventy-three of the 150 psalms in the Bible are attributed to him). Phrases like “the light that silvers the leaves of the olive groves that cling so tenaciously to the thin soils” and, my favourite, “I sat in the buttery light of the late evening…” made me sigh with satisfaction (and a little envy). And yet, beautiful as the writing is on one hand, it is necessarily raw at others: “Half of Avshalom’s hair tangled from the branches, torn, the bloody shreds of scalp still attached.” These were barbaric times, when politics relied less on words than action.
A book for fans, thinkers and lovers of beautiful writing, The Secret Chord is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Brooks’ David startled, disappointed, surprised, challenged and saddened me – what more could I ask for in a character? I’m expecting awards for this one.
Available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Hachette.
Author: Geraldine Brooks
RRP $39.99 (Hardback)
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television