George R.R. Martin’s got nothing on the biblical chroniclers of David, king of Israel. Incest? Treachery and murder? Marriages for love and political alliance? This is the original Game of Thrones. As Geraldine Brooks notes in the afterword to her new novel The Secret Chord, “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age.”
Having such rich source material proves a mixed blessing. As with all historical fiction, many readers will already know the story. Dramatic tension must come from filling in the historical record with invented but plausible events or by exploring the characters’ motives. Since we already know where this story is going, getting there has to be all of the fun.
The Secret Chord starts off well. David, at the height of his virility and power, is pacing in his palace as his army goes out to war, his advisers having persuaded him to leave the fighting to more expendable men. This lion of Judah, caged, is as fearsome to his courtiers as the warrior king is to his enemies. Enter Natan the prophet, sent to distract the king by asking him to recount his life story for an official biography. (In Brooks’ transliteration from the Hebrew, names like Nathan, Solomon and Joab become Natan, Shlomo and Yoav, which may take a little getting used to.)
David surprises Natan by sending him a clay tablet with three names on it, along with instructions to base his writings on what these sources tell him. Natan credits David with wanting an honest biography, but the king has other reasons for wanting the prophet out of the palace. “For a seer,” Natan writes, “I was remarkably obtuse. … Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he had found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your ‘conscience’ walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths.”
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The early chapters, where Natan sets out on his interviews, are the most engaging. Natan’s sources — Mikhal, David’s first wife; Shammah, one of the king’s older brothers; and an unknown, mysterious woman — are strongly drawn and memorable. Here’s Shammah greeting his brother’s emissary and scorning his credentials as a prophet: “You forget. I was there the day he killed your father. I saw your wonderful piece of playacting. … I thought at the time, that boy’s got balls. How you came up with it — kingdom, crown, all that stuff — and had the front to put on that show with your father’s blood up to your ankles. It won you your life, and now look at you.”
But The Secret Chord resonates less strongly once Natan must start narrating David’s story himself. The aging prophet’s introspection often doesn’t hold up to the profane, jealous vitriol of Shammah or the icy, heartbroken fury of Mikhal — or the rich voices of any of the other supporting characters. Sometimes, Natan’s first-person reminiscences seem like narrative text scrolling on a movie screen: inert and designed only to fill the viewer in on the backstory.
This backstory is considerable. David’s path to the throne was a circuitous one, involving at least 15 years of waiting and wandering while his predecessor’s dynasty played out. Perhaps unavoidably, readers unfamiliar with the ancient history of Israel will likely find themselves a bit lost during parts of the narrative, which shifts back and forth in time.
Another challenge is the number of characters. David had children from at least five of his wives, and many play critical roles in the story. Brooks — who’s also author of the historical novels People of the Book, March, Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders — handles this with vivid characterizations of each of the members of David’s large entourage. Who the Plishtim are and why David is raiding Israelite villages might be a little unclear, but each of the members of his court comes into sharp relief as they play a part in David’s rise and fall.
As skilled as Brooks’ portrayals are, they’re ultimately not enough to keep The Secret Chord vibrating with the sort of passion that it evokes in its early pages. By the time David dies an old man’s death and Shlomo ascends the throne, its energy — like that of the great king himself — seems mostly spent.
Gigi Lehman is a freelance writer in San Antonio.
Meet the author
Who: Geraldine Brooks
When: 4 p.m. Oct. 11
Where: Temple Beth Am, 5950 SW 88th St., as part of 35th Annual Berrin Family Jewish Book Festival