Book Review: “The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

In this largely chronological story of the life of King David, Brooks clearly aims to write a book that is historically plausible, true to the biblical events and interesting to any contemporary audience. She largely succeeds on all three levels, so why am I not more enraptured by the book?

David’s tale is certainly one of the most compelling of all time.  Giant killer, reluctant rebel, king, uniter of kingdoms, womanizer, warrior, musician, singer, author of poetry whose beauty and relevance stands with anything ever written.  And, yes, Brooks manages to present all these nuances of David’s complex character, taking particular pains to portray without making excuses his significant failings as a human being.

Telling the story through the memoirs of his prophet Nathan, she also provides narrative prose that is generally contemporary and doesn’t suffer from strained anachronism in its prose and dialogue.

Yet, I did find myself throughout the book resisting the tone.  Nathan’s character comes through as the prophet faithful both to his god and his king; yet, his tone is often distant and pedantic, even as he vividly describes the brutality of ancient warfare or the candid interactions of various individuals. She has tried to produce realistic human dialogue; yet, too often the words of various individuals sound forced, overly broad and unnatural. I found it especially unfulfilling when she produces long sections of dialogue – or, more accurately, monologue — between some character who is describing some event to Nathan.  One of the earliest examples of this is when she uses one of David’s jealous older brothers to describe the killing of Goliath.  There is a great deal of nuance and irony in the telling — the brother’s drunken resentment of what he sees as a distortion of history, the rank vulgarity of his language, the introduction of Saul’s affection for David and much more.  Still, the whole narration reminded me of a somewhat vulgar variation of sermons I’ve heard hundreds of times in which speakers attempt to add layers of imaginative detail to biblical stories. I want to give the author an A for effort, but I still find that the end result falls just short.

All that said, this is a compelling story, and a very interesting take on the David myth. Brooks certainly does an excellent job of putting you in ancient Israel/Judah and providing a thought-provoking examination of perhaps the central event of the Old Testament, the tarnished but glorious rise and reign of David, the poet-warrior-king.