Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks



published 2015



secret chord




[The prophet Natan has gone to talk to Mikhal, one of King David’s wives. Her father was Saul, her brother was Jonathan.]

She received me without warmth, but more civilly than I had expected. Her apartment was a small cell, dim and chilly, set off at the very edge of the women’s quarters.

The years had not told on her in the usual ways – she remained tall and lithe, as I remembered her, and the shawl that she wore against the damp chill of the room revealed a glimpse of hair, still thick and lustrous. Her features were the image of her brother’s cast into a gentler female mold. Both of them had their father’s height, his high, intelligent brow, the chiselled chin and long, regal neck.

But if age had not ravaged her, life had. Her face was drawn, and her eyes, once lively and compelling, were as dead as a deep well in which the water has long been poisoned…

She had always been uncommonly direct for a woman, and I soon discovered that this was still true.

“I loved him. You know that, I suppose?”
 
 
commentary: If you’re wondering why the expression ‘secret chord’ is familiar, it might be from the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah:
I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
.. and that’s where the title comes from: the book is historical fiction, the story of David made into a novel. Natan/Nathan is a figure from the Biblical story, and the novel is narrated by him as he tries to write down David's story - a narrative mentioned in the Old Testament.

It’s one of the best stories in the Bible – how David is chosen from an unpromising background, how he kills Goliath and becomes companion to a King. But the King, Saul, turns against him, although his son Jonathan, who might think he was the heir, allies himself with David.

David becomes king, but suffers losses that wrench the heart 3000 years later. He has problems with women and with his children and with his soldiers. He is often a fine and upstanding man, but he also makes mistakes and misjudgements. Although there is little historical evidence of his existence, there is an idea that he must have been real, because nobody would have invented such a flawed hero.

So his story is a riveting one, and Brooks tells it well. She is best known for her Year of Wonders, the story of a village in Derbyshire during a plague year, but has also written non-fiction about the Middle East, and a novel called People of the Book.

I loved The Secret Chord, but in part because I know and love the story of David so well. I was slowed down reading the new book because I read the Biblical version in parallel, in the terrific translation by Robert Alter. Alter’s version is mentioned in two previous blog entries, on the black cap and on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis – that second post features the story of Mikhal ‘the only woman in the entire Hebrew Bible explicitly reported to love a man’ – the point made by Mikhal in the novel above.

The story within the Bible is sad enough – Mikhal is married off to David, and is a strong and important companion. Then she is taken away and sent to someone else. Then David wants her back, but her new husband doesn’t want her to go, and follows her, wailing. Later she manages to insult and outrage David by criticizing his ‘dancing and whirling before the Ark’ – this sounds rather laughable, but isn’t in either Samuel or The Secret Chord.

Brooks gives this strange, very individual tale its full worth – along with the stories of other voiceless women from the books of Samuel: Abigail, Tamar, Bathsheba. It is a brave and worthwhile venture. I'll need another post to look at the story of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. 

The format curiously reminded me of two quite different books – Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy is the story of Alexander told through the eyes of his young male companion. And Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave tells of Merlin trying to make sure King Arthur does the right thing. (Both those books are long-time favourite, top 20, desert island books of mine.) And Brooks does bravely resist the temptation of putting modern-day views into Biblical mouths. So all in all I was very taken with The Secret Chord – even though I knew the plot, I found it hard to put down.

The picture shows David and Mikhal in happier times: it is by Virginio Grana.
















10 comments:

  1. I love that Leonard Cohen song, Moira - glad you made that connection for us. And the book sounds terrific. It's interesting how some of the best characters from the Bible, whether they're historically real or not, are those flawed characters who also do great things. David is certainly one of them.

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    1. He's a very real person, Margot - far from perfect, but that's what makes him interesting. Brooks brings that out to the full.

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  2. Oh, I'm going to a talk in Seattle by Ms Brooks in a few weeks - thanks for the reminder to round up friends to use the other tickets I bought and to read some Geraldine before then! I loved Year of Wonders. Want to join us?

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    1. Ooh love to! What a great writer she is, I would have loved to hear her talk.
      Happy Thanksgiving, by the way....

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  3. I think this is one of the ones you read, so I don't have to!

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  4. Moira, I'd like to read this book at some point. I also liked the excerpt above. Good and clean writing often inspires me to read a book outside my comfort zone.

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    1. I know just what you mean Prashant, and I did find this one a complete change from my recent reading.

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  5. The writing in the extract sounds very good, but I don't think the subject matter is for me. I am glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. I did, but I think it's a book for people who really are fascinated by the subject matter.

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