Thrilled to be reviewing a net galley copy of the latest book by one of my all-time favourite authors (no relation), The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, I waited until I cleared the decks a little to really immerse myself in this epic tale of King David, he of “David and Goliath” fame. I was not disappointed.
In this book, readers are taken back in time to ancient Israel, a beautiful, dry land of sectarian violence, cultural divisions, bloodshed and endless fighting – but also of faith, loyalty and perseverance. This period of history is shared across the global cultural unconscious as so many of the major faiths are founded upon the events and folks that rose to fame – real and imagined – during this time and within this geographical area. To read a novel set in this era, and about one of its major figures, is fascinating for a whole range of reasons, but primarily because, in David’s tale, myth and history collide.
Brooks fleshes out the man who would be king – exposes him warts and all – and allows us to follow his incredible trajectory from abused and virtually disowned grubby shepherd boy, to leader of brigands, to powerful king and wilfully ignorant tyrant.
The book opens towards the end of David’s reign and is told from the point of view of his prophet or seer, Natan who effectively guides the reader, using different characters (including himself) as mouthpieces, over David’s long life. Natan has been with David since he was a boy and his life was spared when his village was attacked and his parents brutally murdered by the man he now serves. Explaining to the grief-stricken boy his actions were necessary, Natan observes how, as David grows into power, he uses this notion of necessity to both explain and justify his often cruel decisions regarding the people he rules and those he seeks to conquer. Whereas necessity once dictated vicious actions that mostly benefited the majority, this notion slowly transforms until David’s deeds are enacted for mainly selfish purposes – regardless of the cost.
Through Natan’s eyes, we see David rise to take over the fractured kingdom and slowly, through his skills as warrior, politician, his undeniable charisma, and through timely and advantageous marriages, unite the once divided people into a force to be reckoned with.
Not one to steer away from presenting his master openly and honestly, through Natan we see David’s growing greed and the destruction it leaves in its wake. We bear witness to his selfish desires and how he will stop at nothing to have them fulfilled, even to the detriment of his reputation and the loyalty of those closest to him. We also see his blindness when it comes to the faults in his own children and how he appears to have an uncanny ability to sweep the problems he and his children create under the rug – that is, until the consequences come home to roost. And come home they do.
The journey of David’s rise, his decline into shameless hubris and dotage is intense, powerful and so very, very vivid. Brooks’ writing is sublime as she places us in every moment, allows us to understand David’s motivation for his sometimes horrendous, and usually calculated decisions – even when we’re appalled by his choices.
The attention to detail is marvellous and though meticulous, never detracts from the story telling, which, as you’d expect from Brooks is masterful.
This was a magnificent read, a visceral experience in many ways and one that presents us, in David, with an anti-hero extraordinaire. A constant contradiction, he is a great and tragic man, a cruel and generous one; a loving and yet callous individual, who nonetheless in all his shades of grey, is so very real.
Highly recommended for lovers of history, those seeking a great read and for anyone curious about one writer’s interpretation of the man behind the legend.