Review by Rhonda Pooley
‘The Secret Chord’ has all the elements I have come to expect from Geraldine Brookes: meticulous research, vivid characterisation and a gripping plot. The Old Testament stories of King David are convincingly retold through the narrative voice of his mentor and conscience, the prophet Nathan - or Natan, as Brookes writes it. Except for David most of the characters’ names have traditional Jewish pronunciation rather than the more familiar English renditions: for example, Yonatan for Jonathon, Batsheva for Bathsheba.
All the well-loved Sunday school stories are here – the fight with Goliath, David’s skill as a harpist and singer, his years as an outcast in the wilderness, his adulterous affair with Batsheva, and the triumphant reign over a now united kingdom. I was impressed by the exploration of the scorn directed at the young David by his father and brothers – an issue that had always puzzled me. Brookes extrapolates a plausible explanation for this from between the lines of the Biblical account.
Other passages I found to be emotionally authentic are the powerfully written descriptions of David’s musical prowess. An example is this description of his singing voice:
It is hard to describe a sound without likening it to another sound, and yet the timbre of David’s voice was a thing apart. It had the urgency of the shofar, and yet was not shrill. It could engender awe, as a high wind howling dangerously through mighty branches, or bring delight, as an unexpected trill of birdsong….or it could bring unease, like a wild beast howling in the distant hills.
To describe the sound I find myself turning to other senses – sight and touch. The fall of fine silk through the hand; the rich warmth of enveloping fur. Or a goldsmith beating out a foil…the sudden gleam, as if sunlight itself had been captured. David’s voice was that bright flare of shimmering gold. It could transmit light and warmth….
Sometimes, the voice could summon such a power that it recalled not sunlight but lightning – something so fierce and magnificent that when it passed through you, it left you stricken and hollowed. (p. 165-166)
As might be expected from a popular secular novelist, David’s more notorious human frailties are made much of, and it is here that Brookes tends to depart from the Biblical record. Her ‘take’ on the relationship between David and Yonatan is particularly disturbing. Her narrative voice descends into gratuitous crudeness not seen in her earlier novels.
Given the castigation of same-sex relationships throughout Hebrew history, the friendship described so graphically by Brookes would have been soundly condemned if it had in fact been homosexual in nature. That there was no challenge by Natan in the Bible record—as he did so readily in the matter of Batsheva—suggests that there was no such transgression of the law in David and Yonatan’s situation. In describing a predominantly sexual origin and outworking of that relationship, Brookes’ has written a narrow view of the covenant of affection and loyalty that may exist between men.
Allowing for my reservations regarding the portrayal of David’s relationship with Yonatan, I am happy to recommend The Secret Chord. While I consider Brookes departs from the integrity of research in that section of the novel, it proved to be a disappointing, but nevertheless temporary, distraction in the overall portrayal of the life and times of the despised shepherd boy who became the king the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart.