The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

“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.

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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.

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2016 Longlisted Books1

8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

Here they are, the 20 books longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. In alphabetical order (of author’s surname):

A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton

Whispers Through a Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

The Green Road – Anne Enright

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

The Anatomist’s Dream – Clio Gray

At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison

Pleasantville – Attica Locke

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

Girl at War – Sara Nović

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

My Name Is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

My initial reaction is that the three books I thought were certs are all on there – A God in Ruins, My Name Is Lucy Barton and A Little Life. Very pleased to see all three.

I predicted six of the titles, which is my highest success rate ever! Very pleased to see Girl at War on the list as well as The Portable Veblen. I’ve enjoyed all those I’ve already read, which includes The Green Road which I haven’t posted my review for yet.

As for the rest of the list, I’m delighted to see Pleasantville – I loved Black Water Rising and have had the latest on my TBR pile for ages. I’ve also heard good things from people I trust about The Book of Memory, At Hawthorn Time and The Glorious Heresies.

As always with The Bailey’s Prize there are some books I hadn’t heard of before I saw the list. My absolute favourite part of this is reading those titles, there’s always one in there that surprises me with its brilliance. On looking through the blurbs, I can’t believe I hadn’t come across Ruby, it’s had so many fantastic reviews, and The Anatomist’s Dream is perfect for my PhD thesis so I’m very pleased it’s come to my attention.

I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the reading and debating the books with the rest of the shadow panel. I’m hoping you’ll join in the discussion on our blogs and Twitter too. Can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of the chosen titles.