Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The complexities and contradictions of a king: Geraldine Brooks' The Secret Chord

In her gorgeously written novel of ambition, courage, retribution, and triumph, Brooks imagines the life and character of King David in all his complexity, from his humble childhood through old age.  A brilliant harpist and singer with immense charisma, this man beloved by the Lord is also a fearsome warrior who ruthlessly pursues his vision of power.

Natan, David’s longtime counselor and prophet, proves a shrewd chronicler for his tale, and David wisely knows it. The plot ranges back and forth in time, as Natan interviews three individuals David hand-selects for him to speak with, reminisces about his years of service, and observes David’s passion for the beautiful, married Batsheva and its consequences.  But this isn’t David’s story alone. Stitched onto the familiar biblical framework are insightful interpretations of his wives and family members.

The language, clear and precise throughout, turns soaringly poetic when describing music or the glory of David’s city. Brooks’ preference for biblical Hebrew names emphasizes the story’s origins, and, taken as a whole, the novel feels simultaneously ancient, accessible, and timeless.

The Secret Chord is published today by Viking in hardcover ($27.95, 320pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue.

25 comments:

  1. I feel a tug when I see the name Geraldine Brooks, but I have not read any of her books. Where would you suggest I start to get a good sense of her writing?

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    1. My personal favorite is Caleb's Crossing, set in 17th-century New England (I have a review here if you're curious). You could also start with Year of Wonders, about a plague village in 17th-century England... probably her best-known work. Her novel March won the Pulitzer but it's the only one I haven't read. It's about the father from Little Women. You can go with whichever setting appeals to you the most!

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    2. Thanks - I think I'll do Year of Wonders. I enjoyed Connie Willis' Doomsday Book about the plague and am currently reading Sam Thomas' The Midwife's Tale taking place in the 1640s - he's a local author here in Cleveland. I like the early British stories. Thanks again!

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    3. I loved Doomsday Book too! I enjoyed The Midwife's Tale, also. You have some good reading in store!

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  2. I haven't read any Geraldine Brooks, unfortunately, but I do have Year of Wonders on my shelf. I'm also really looking forward to The Secret Chord, even more so now that I read your review!

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    1. I really enjoyed it. Reactions have been mixed, partly because of the violence (though I had expected this for a novel about King David) and for other reasons... check out the Amazon reviews for other perspectives. There wasn't enough room to go into detail in my short review, but I especially liked her interpretation of the women who surrounded David. Even though he didn't always treat them well, and their lives were far from easy. They survived as best they could.

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  3. This book sounds excellent! I've always thought King David is one of the most fascinating Bible characters, so I'm looking forward to reading this. As usual, you're making my TBR pile grow!

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  4. He is a fascinating character, even though he would not have been an easy person to be around. Brooks portrays him from many angles, so you get a full picture of what he may have been like.

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  5. I enjoyed March, so I'm happy to see this one cropping up everywhere with good reviews!

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    1. I do want to read March! It's the only one of her novels I haven't read.

      I've read many good reviews, but they haven't been unanimously positive. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune disliked it, and managed to throw in some uninformed comments about historical fiction while she was at it!

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  6. The same you put up your review here (which I haven't had time to look at until now) our public radio program interviewed the author. She came across as very sharp, deeply intelligent and educated in all the matters out of which she created this novel. I am looking forward to reading this after Thanksgiving when I have some time again.

    Love, C.

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    1. Was that the one from NPR? It came across my google alerts, but I haven't had time to listen to it yet. Brooks is well-informed about the Middle East, past and present, and the complex religious history of the region - and that all came through in the novel, too. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts once you have a chance to read it.

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    2. She may have done more than one for NPR? The one I heard was on the noon - 2 PM Lenny Lopate Show, WNYC, New York.

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    3. Very possible. The one I saw was from NPR's Weekend Edition on October 4th.

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  7. I've read all of Brooks' novels and especially enjoyed March and Year of Wonders. Been looking forward to this one as I'm a big fan of the stories of King David, and it sounds like a winner from your review, Sarah.

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    1. It's not an easy read in places, but beautifully written. I first got interested in King David's story after reading India Edghill's Queenmaker - and find it interesting to see how different authors can work with the same basic story and make it their own.

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  8. I really enjoyed this as well - the author has written a very graceful, well-paced and at times moving portrait of a complex character using the tried-and-true technique of showing him to us through the eyes of a loyal but clear-eyed associate. And she snuck in the phrase 'the baffled king" as a nod to the Leonard Cohen song which inspired her title :) I find myself wishing she would write a sequel about David's equally complex son Solomon...

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    1. I didn't see that about "the baffled king"! Good catch. I recognized the origins of the book title but don't know all of the lyrics :)

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  9. I imagine that Brooks' depiction of the relationship between Jonathan and David will stir up controversy among those who prefer the more conventional soul mate/blood brother version we got at Sunday school :) Plenty of violence as well, but as the Old Testament is full of tales of bloodthirsty battles, tribal warfare, betrayal and and internecine murder, this shouldn't come as a surprise.

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    1. I agree. The depiction may be nontraditional, but if I'm not mistaken, she doesn't contradict what's written in the Bible but puts her own interpretation on the episodes laid out there - a classic historical novelist technique, in other words :)

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    2. btw, I found this video interview with Brooks by Religion & Ethics that you might find worth listening to. She addresses the issue of David and Jonathan there, and the interviewer asked her the same question about a sequel involving Solomon!

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  10. The Lenny Lopate show discussion of The Secret Chord is linked to in my own very quick review (written before packing and leaving town again) up on Fox Home.

    Love, C.

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    1. Excellent - glad you had time to read it in between everything else you've been doing. I'll go in and read the post on your site shortly (am out of town myself at the moment, conferencing through the weekend). Hope the touring is going well!

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  11. Thanks for the links, both :) As Foxessa points out in her excellent review, the Middle East has always been an area of violent and bloody contention.and not much has changed there, then, except that, by the deepest of ironies, Germany has now become the Promised Land!

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    1. I hadn't thought about it in quite that way before, but yes, how ironic.

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