“I should do many things I have not done and I should not have done many of the things I have done. My heart, Natan, is as hollow as a gourd. If I am a man, as you say, then I deserve to be ranked with the lowest of men.”
The Secret Chord is the story of King David, the shepherd boy who slayed the giant Goliath and went on to lead Israel. His story’s told from the perspective of Natan, the seer, who becomes his guide and confidant prior to him becoming king.
The novel begins with Natan going to the middle-aged David and asking to set down his story so the memories of his feats will be preserved. David agrees but, to Natan’s surprise, declines to give his own account, sending Natan to see those who knew him prior to his and Natan’s relationship. His choices are also surprising: his estranged first wife, Mikhal, ‘for whom his very name was bile’; Shammah, David’s only remaining older brother, and Nizvet bat Adael, a woman who is part of Shammah’s household.
I had heard the stories, of course. There is not a person living in the Land who has not. But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung. That was my task: to uncover those earliest roots. And he had directed me to the seedbed.
The portrait that they and Natan paint is one of a boy, and later a man, who is brave, intelligent and fierce but also powerful, ruthless and unforgiving. The story of how he and Natan meet is a good example of this: Natan has fallen asleep tending his father’s flock of sheep and goats. When they wander into David’s camp, David prevents his men from preparing stew and rounds the animals up. He tells Natan what he has done and sends a message to Natan’s father, via Natan, that David and his men would be glad of provisions. Natan’s father refuses, calling David a traitor to the king.
At dawn I walked through my father’s blood and stood face-to-face with his killer. David had come in the dark, swift and silent. He slew my father and my uncle Barack with the dispatch of a slaughter man attending to his trade.
It’s at this point that Natan speaks his first prophecy and becomes part of David’s band of men.
The novel details the battles, the shifting allegiances, the power struggles, Natan’s prophesies and the coming-of-age of David’s sons. It also gives voice to David’s wives, detailing his treatment of them, the part they play in his quest for power and, particularly in the case of Batsheva, the misconceptions that surround their tales. For me, the reframing of the women’s stories, from tales of seduction to those that demonstrate the brutality of a powerful man are what makes this novel stand out from many historical fiction texts. Although the narrator is male, Brooks ensures that the women’s stories are foregrounded where they fit into the overall narrative arc.
Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested.
Yesterday I said that the Bailey’s Prize longlist always produces a couple of gems and this is another of them. I briefly heard of Geraldine Brooks when March won the Pulitzer but never ventured as far as reading any of her work. After the delight that is the mature, gripping, beautifully written The Secret Chord, I’ll be treating myself to her back catalogue.
Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.