When Geraldine Brooks’ son was nine, he asked her if he could learn the harp.
“I was surprised—that’s not the normal choice for a little boy,” says Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of People of the Book and March. “He got a harp and started lessons and his teacher had a magnificent concert. I started to think about the other boy harpist.”
That harpist is the Goliath-vanquishing King David, the biblical legend at the center of Brooks’ absorbing new novel, The Secret Chord. “You don’t go through a day without hearing, ‘Oh, that’s a David and Goliath battle,’ ” says Brooks. “It’s so hackneyed, yet there are other things that are so remarkable. Those are kind of lost. There’s no spotlight on them.”
The Secret Chord illuminates these other powerful stories that make up the life of a charismatic yet deeply flawed king.
“I started reading the Bible, which is not something I do ordinarily, and I found that David’s story isn’t neatly packaged there. You have to really scrounge for it gathered over three or four books,” says Brooks. “But it’s a complete story, from early childhood to extreme old age with every human joy and every human suffering. The completeness of the portrait really struck me—this glimpse into the ancient world.”
Brooks was intrigued by references to the lost book of Nathan, which the Bible hints may have held an account of King David told from close proximity.
“What kind of account would that guy have given?” asks Brooks. “The only guy brave enough to castigate David when he does wrong….”
The Secret Chord gives voice to the prophet Nathan, and through him we see the tumultuous life of David, marked by ambition, great love, and great violence, underscored by a deep sense of humanity. As she writes in her afterword, Brooks believes David did actually exist “for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.” “There’s not really any experience that his life doesn’t touch on: success and failure, being a hero, being a traitor, being loved by women and hated by them, loving a man deeply,” says Brooks.
In Brooks’ telling, Nathan joins David and his band of outlaws when Nathan is still a child and David is on the run from King Shaul (the book notes that Brooks used “personal and place-names in their transliteration from the Hebrew of the Tanakh: Shaul…for example, rather than the perhaps more familiar Saul”). When Nathan’s father refuses David’s modest request for supplies, the decision has fatal consequences for his family but Nathan is spared when he has a vision predicting David’s rise to power, and David recognizes he is a prophet. Despite this brutal introduction, the two develop a close bond. Nathan—who describes himself as David’s conscience—becomes one of David’s closest counselors as he grows up. But as a prophet who sees so much, Nathan has a blind spot in his love for David.
“He’s so close to David and even though he sees where David is abusing power, he can’t bring himself to withdraw his love. It’s almost like a father-son relationship. He doesn’t want to acknowledge the human costs of some of the behavior that David indulges in. Or he wants to spare David the consequences, but in the end, he can’t,” says Brooks.
One of David’s graver sins is sleeping with Batsheva, the wife of one of his most respected soldiers, Uriah. When Batsheva becomes pregnant with David’s child, David gives orders to abandon Uriah on the front line of battle, where he is killed.
“This is a guy who notoriously covered up his own adultery by sending a loyal soldier to his death,” says Brooks. “He has grievous flaws, and in the end, he has to answer for them too. He doesn’t get off quietly. The retribution in terms of what he loses in his own life is heavy.”
Divine retribution arrives in the behavior of some of his sons, who grow up to commit rape, murder, incest, and rebellion. In The Secret Chord, David’s childhood is depicted as lacking in paternal love; David overcompensates to a fault with his own children, looking the other way as their actions grow more and more appalling. In her writing, Brooks modeled them off of Saddam Hussein’s sons.
“I was thinking of two rotten boys. Saddam Hussein’s sons were just the most morally lost pair. I had them in my mind as models, these boys that grew up like thorns because nobody would criticize Saddam Hussein’s sons. The children of absolute power—it doesn’t generally go too well,” she says.
At times, reading The Secret Chord is not unlike a Sunday night viewing of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which Brooks acknowledges with a laugh. “I love Game of Thrones. George RR Martin is my hero, though I wish he would stop killing off my favorite characters. If he kills Jon Snow I’m going to be really ticked,” she says.
One of the challenges in writing the novel was accessing the voices of characters that lived thousands of years ago, says Brooks. For her other works of historical fiction (for example, March, set in the Civil War era, or Year of Wonders, about survivors of the plague in 17th-century England), there “are such deep written archives. It’s so easy to access the voices of the period. These voices are lost to us. We cannot hear how they really sounded. I thrashed around a bit trying to get a voice [for Nathan], because how did the Second Iron Age Hebrew prophet sound?”
Brooks also found strong, clear voices for the women in David’s story. Her favorite female character is Mikhal, David’s first wife and the daughter of King Shaul: “To me, she was one of the great characters. It’s the only place [in the Bible] where I could find a woman’s emotional feelings for a man: ‘Mikhal loves David.’ That kind of blew me away when I read that. The women in these [Bible] stories are lucky if they have a name. We don’t even know Noah’s wife’s name or Lot’s wife, yet here is this fully formed character who even gets in a few lines,” she says.
“It’s this great love turned to great hatred, and who hasn’t seen marriages where that happens? Affection turns to bile, and she has so much power to wound him,” says Brooks.
Brooks researched her novel by traveling to historic sites relevant to King David, and using her imagination.
“I went out and walked the lands. Instead of going to the archives, I explored the caves where David hid when he was on the run from King Shaul,” she says. Brooks learned, literally, how to separate sheep from the goats. “It’s not a metaphor anymore,” she says with a laugh. She also combed through films and other books about David. The Richard Gere film King David left a particularly sour impression: “You can’t un-see it,” she says.
“I’m always intrigued why David in particular has inspired so much art and creativity, and I think it is because he was an artist, as well as being other things,” says Brooks. “His life as an artist is a very big part of his story, and maybe artists are drawn to other artists.”
Courtney Allison is a freelance contributor to Kirkus Reviews.