Geraldine Brooks is a master at bringing the past alive, imbuing history with living, breathing characters who allow us to understand the very difficult task of being human. Whether her novels concern ordinary people or kings, in Brooks’s skillful hands the issues of the past echo our own deepest concerns: love and loss, drama and tragedy, chaos and brutality. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning “March” (2005), the author imagined the Civil War experiences of the father in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” In “Caleb’s Crossing” (2011), readers come to know a native Wampanoag whose culture has been decimated. In “People of the Book” (2008), a rare-book expert restores the manuscript of a Haggadah that has miraculously survived a world of war. And in the most wondrous “Year of Wonders” (2001), people are swept along in the tragedy of the plague in a 17th-century village.
Perhaps the hardships of war and the intricacies of human behavior are always at the heart of Brooks’s books. Her new novel, “The Secret Chord,” focuses on the most legendary warrior of all time: David, father of Shlomo (Solomon) and of a nation. (Brooks uses transliterated names from the Hebrew Bible.) The story is told by Natan (Nathan), a prophet who is both seer and adviser. He will become the person closest to David, even though their relationship begins in horrifying violence.
When Natan’s father rejects David’s plea for help and is murdered by a band of David’s men, Natan, only 10, surprises himself and everyone else with his vision of this ragged, brilliant outlaw as a future king. It is the same vision David has, one that binds the two for life.
“It might seem strange, that a boy would so easily desert all that he knew to serve his father’s killer,” Natan says. “It seemed strange to me, too. But as I lay there, my grief raw and my mind addled, I was not confused about where I now belonged. I knew, in some deep place, even then at the very beginning of things, that the heart of a prophet is not his own to bestow. I had to go with David whether I would or no.”
Because this is a book in which war is a constant, most of the action is concerned with the brutality and complexities of battle. But “The Secret Chord” is also a study of loyalty and betrayal at its most basic level. Can you trust your husband, your brother, your son? David is a complicated character, and not one we especially like: He is a warrior with enormous flaws and an equally enormous ego. In Brooks’s telling, his dream of the future precludes caring about the fate of anyone other than himself and his progeny. But can a king be anything other than a dreamer, and can the hero of that dream be anyone but himself?
The prophet and narrator Natan is the one who allows the reader entry into David’s mind and heart. He’s also the character to whom we grow most attached. He promises David “an empire and a line that would never fail throughout the generations.” He is loyal, although the man he serves seems driven primarily by a desire for power. When Natan interviews those closest to David, including his mother and surviving brother, they recall a young outcast who needed to fend for himself.
The prophet also is interested in the tales told by David’s wives, as are we, but there are times when we also yearn to know these fascinating women more fully; each one deserves a book of her own. They must deal with David’s manipulations and learn the art of it if they are to survive. Some of these women, such as his soul mate, Avigail (Abigail), truly love David. Others, such the bitter Mikhal (Michal), the ruined daughter of Shaul (Saul), and the legendary Bathsheba, mother of Shlomo, come to despise him.
The one true love in the novel, beautifully drawn in its complexity and sheer joy, is between David and Shaul’s son Yonatan (Jonathan). It is this story that most fully humanizes the king, finally allowing us to see him as a man of great soul. Based on the relationship noted in the Bible, one that often has been debated by scholars, Brooks leaves little doubt that the bond between the two men is one built upon “a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule, strained the bonds between father and son, and defied the will of a king.” Natan remembers, “When I sat by David’s side as he fought through his grief to compose the lament — ‘The Song of the Bow,’ which everyone now learns by heart as a matter of course — only then, I think, did I fully understand the power of the love they had, one for the other.”
In many ways, “The Secret Chord” reads like a prose poem, with battle after battle recounted in detail, but it’s a page turner of a poem. We want to know how David manages to stave off his rivals and enemies, just as we want to know what love means to him and who, if anyone, will cause him to be faithful.
If there is a secret chord the Lord can hear, and if David the harpist and poet is favored to be king, then how does he become the man who unites a people? In the final analysis, a king who becomes a legend must see himself as we do: a mystery, complex and fascinating, a man as much caught up in sin as he is in faith and in song.
Hoffman is the author of many novels, including “The Dovekeepers,” “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” and “The Marriage of Opposites.”
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 15, Geraldine Brooks will be at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. For tickets, contact Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking. 302 pp. $27.95