cover image The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord

Geraldine Brooks. Viking, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-670-02577-0

Brooks’s interest in religious commitment (People of the Book) accrues rich rewards in this ambitious and psychologically astute novel about the harp-playing, psalm-singing King David of the bible. A man of contradictory impulses, David was also a brutal and pitiless warrior living in “a culture of blood revenge.” In his younger years he was an outlaw and renegade, a raider and marauder. He was greedy, vain, intemperate, stubborn, and ruthlessly pragmatic. He loved his wives, however (at least most of them), and doted on his sons and daughter. His outstanding achievement was to unite the tribes of Judah and Israel to establish the first Hebrew kingdom. Brooks develops David’s complex personality and the bloody events of his tumultuous times through the narration of his prophet, Natan, of whom there is a tantalizing mention in the Bible (Chronicles). This format allows Natan to speak with various members of David’s family, his generals and soldiers, and even his enemies. Central to the narrative are a prediction and a curse. Through Natan, God (always called “the Name”) first promises David a throne, an empire, and a line of descendants. Later Natan foretells tragedy; David “will be scalded by the consequences of his choices” and will pay for the deaths he has caused “four times over.” These tragic events provide plenty of melodrama and considerable suspense. While most of the plot is fictional conjecture, Brooks evokes time and place with keenly drawn detail. Although her decision to use archaic language, including the Hebrew spelling of names (Solomon is Shlomo; Bethlehem is Beit Lethem; the Philistines are the Plishtim) sometimes slows the narrative, she compensates with the verve of an adroit storyteller. (Oct.)