FROM THE first pages of The Secret Chord, one thing is clear: The King David written about here is a lot more interesting than the one we learned about at Sunday school.
In her fifth novel, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks presents the poetic shepherd boy with the uncanny aim who rose to become King of Israel as a complex, charismatic anti-hero, a temperamental sensualist who oscillates between megalomaniacal tyrant and humble servant of God. It’s a powerful, enveloping read that follows the biblical warrior from the hills of Hebron to the rooftops of his palace, imbued with familiar scripture references and sensory details that bring those Sunday school lessons to life.
The Secret Chord is also brutal as hell, its stark warfare and savagery deposing Game of Thrones as the reigning fount of contemporary bloodshed. In fact, the comparisons are fair—and intense—enough that Brooks’ publishers devised an online quiz of memorable quotes from both sources. (This one stumped us: “I thought you were a clever little fraud that day you saved your skin, and I think you’re a cunning charlatan now.”)
Yet the violence always serves the story in Brooks’ skilled hands, and the David we think we know—the anointed one who slayed the giant, played the harp and united a kingdom—becomes ever more fascinating in fiction.
Heralded as “one of our most supple and insightful novelists” by the New York Times Book Review, the Australian-born Brooks will be at the Savannah Book Festival on Saturday, Feb. 13. She spoke to Connect this week from her home on Martha’s Vineyard, where she lives with her husband, author and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Horwitz, and their two sons.
We know about David’s life from that other book. Why choose to write a work of fiction around him?
I first began thinking about him when my son picked up the harp—he was 9. I remembered that King David also played the harp, so I went to look for him.
As kids, we get this sanitized version, those Top Ten David moments, and it’s all a bit of a cliché, especially the whole episode of David and Goliath. But there is this remarkable account of his life in Samuel 1 and 2 and in Kings and Chronicles, and I thought, this is a full life, probably the first one that is documented where we know a human being from early childhood to extreme old age. Everything happens to him, every emotional experience that a human being can have, from the best to the worst.
You’ve written that David “shimmers somewhere in the half light between history and myth.” Did you approach research for the book from an academic or rabbinical perspective?
I approached it every way I could think of—of course, there was a tremendous amount of reading, and obviously scholars have picked over this material. There are rabbinical sources and Christian sources as well as Islamic ones. David is important to all the Abrahamic faiths; a lot of non-Muslims aren’t aware that he is a big figure in Islamic teachings.
And if you believe that the Psalms are accredited to him, which I do, there’s so much autobiographical material in the Psalms, particularly about his unhappiness as a child.
The really useful thing for me was going to the places associated with King David in Israel: The hills where he herded sheep, the desert, the caves where he was an outlaw, looking out at the terrain of the Valley of Elah. Putting myself in the same place where he was said to have been, watching how the light changes over the day, smelling the scents of the crushed herbs on the hillside, having the same sensory experiences, even though it was 3000 years ago.
The Secret Chord is told from the perspective of the prophet, Natan, whose book was lost. How did you fill the gaps?
Natan is really a crucial character—he doesn't get a great many lines in scripture, but when he comes into the story, he comes in with a bang. He is the one man who confronts David about his abuses of power and castigates him ferociously—the courage it takes to do that is mind-blowing.
He is also there at the end, wrangling the succession of Solomon. David didn’t drive him away; he drew him closer. So that’s part of David’s greatness: that he’s prepared to accept criticism. Not many powerful men do.
Then, of course, there are the two mentions in Chronicles that say Natan went on to write the life of David, all his acts from first to last, and yet we don’t have that book. That really got the juices flowing for me, imagining what kind of book that guy would have written.
The language is quite different from the narrative tone of your other books. Was that intentional?
I really didn’t want it to sound like the King James Bible, as beautiful as that is, but that’s not from the Second Iron Age when these events took place. So I tried to get a sense of the austereness of biblical Hebrew, which is also beautiful in its way, but like a Doric column is compared to a Corinthian one—less is more, very direct.
With few exceptions, women don’t get their own narratives in the Bible. What was it like to speak for the women in David’s life?
Exactly! His mother, Nitzevet, isn’t even named in the Bible; I had to rely on Talmudic sources. This book is in the tradition of midrash, where you take a Bible story and you give your own speculations and interpretations. The women in David's story are fabulous—they're sketched very briefly, but they're very individual and you get more sense of them than almost any other women in scripture. But you're getting it all from a male gaze. It's all about how they affected David, not how he affected them.
This book relays the tremendous helplessness and vulnerability in these women's stories. Was that hard to write?
The rape of Tamar was terribly hard to write. It's brutal in the scripture—it's very economically told, but, God, what a horrible scene.
And there is Batsheva, who is often portrayed as a seductress in literature, but I think anyone woman who reads that is like, no way! I mean, you know she’s young because she doesn’t have any children yet with Uriah. She’s unprotected because her husband isn’t there, and the king calls for you, hello? What choice did she have?
It’s awful because that powerlessness and vulnerability isn’t so different now. We have ISIS and Boko Harem raping girls every single day. You have to confront this. You can’t gloss it over.
How do you feel about the HBO version of Game of Thrones? A lot of raping there.
It's awful! Even more brutal than the book, I don't know why they're doing that. At the same time they're also creating these really important female characters, so I'm very conflicted about Game of Thrones.
Is the "secret chord" something Leonard Cohen made up or did it really exist?
That notion has always been around as part of the mythology of David, that he played so brilliantly that his music pleased God. I'm always trying to imagine how good that must sound!
So you kind of debunk Goliath as an actual giant. Realistically, how big do you think he was?
It was really fun to unpick that [laughs]. I went back to the archeological research and learned everything I could. The Philistines had access to iron and were more sophisticated, and they would head up to the hills and steal sheep from the Hebrew tribes.
Sure, Goliath must have been tall, maybe one of those basketball player types, but in the scripture there is much more detail about his armor. That was the important thing: He was way better armed than anyone they’d seen.
It seems like even the most secular heretic knows of King David. Why does his legacy—his shimmering myth—persist?
I think two reasons. First, there is all of the magnificent representation in art through the ages. When I started this, I knew about the really famous images in David in painting and sculpture. But there are so many more—he has fueled the imaginations of so many artists.
Also, I think the stories we do know about him are so good and so timeless: The little guy against the big guy, the powerful man undone by his own appetites. There are plenty of modern instances of abuse of power and reprehensible behavior, but the difference is that David takes it on board when it’s pointed out to him.
He’s not only sorry, he tries to make amends. He pays for everything that he’s done wrong with what happens in his life.