REVIEW | Natasha Moore
Thursday 19 November 2015
Geraldine Brooks, author of Year of Wonders, March and People of the Book, has written a new novel about the life of King David. How might Christians feel about her retelling of this ancient story?
The afterword to Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, The Secret Chord, notes that “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age. Some scholars have called this biography the oldest piece of history writing, predating Herodotus by at least half a millennium.”
The life of King David, taken as a whole, is astonishing and tragic and glorious and disturbing. But like the rest of those enormous chunks of the Bible made up of historical narrative, it’s strangely rare for believers to read it that way. We tend to engage with these stories piecemeal: chapter by chapter, over days or weeks, in sermons or devotions, as free-standing episodes holding the promise of nuggets of insight to be dug out and set on the mantelpiece. We need constant reminders of “context” to be able to follow them – the who’s who, the who-did-what (and to whom), the state-of-the-union for Israel at a given moment.
Needless to say, the novelist or the filmmaker approaches such narratives very differently from the careful exegete. Not that their efforts amount to heedlessness: much painstaking research goes into these retellings. Even if you lament the version of Noah’s ark or the Exodus that comes out at the end, for the Hollywood producer or the bestselling author to deem them a worthy investment testifies to how engrossing – bluntly, how entertaining – the stories of the Bible can be.
There’s plenty in Brooks’ latest book for the fastidious believer to be miffed about, if they choose. Predictably, she plays up the love between David and Jonathan as an unambiguously sexual relationship. Gratingly, she drops the words of Ecclesiastes straight into the mouth of the boy Solomon. And, sure, she takes a few liberties with the chronology, massaging events into a sequence that’s more psychologically intelligible to the 21st-century reader.
But if we’re open to it, this fictional appropriation of David’s life has a lot to offer the Christian reader. Its very estrangement of the familiar – Brooks opts, for example, to use the Hebrew of the Tanakh for names; Shmuel for Samuel, Shlomo for Solomon, Yoav for Joab – can do us a great service, making off with our old familiar tales and characters and then giving them back, renewed.
The Secret Chord teased out for me threads in the Bible account that I’d never noticed before: the contempt that David’s eldest brother shows him (“I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is”) when he shows up at the Israelite front lines, soon to fell Goliath. The tragedy of his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michal, who is “given” to another man when David is driven into exile; when David becomes king and demands her back, years later, her new husband follows her, weeping, as she’s taken away. Brooks guesses at the life they’ve made together in the interval. The appalling toll of war; the strange battle between the armies of David and his son Absalom, of which we’re told that “the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.”
This is what the novel can do for us, that we struggle to do for ourselves as we encounter the efficiency and relative impassivity of the biblical account. Each of these vital human beings – unstable, doomed Saul; the foreign princess Maakah, whose two children by David wind up as the “desolate” Tamar and the treacherous Absalom; impetuous Joab, commander of David’s armies – hopes and suffers through long years of heavy experience. These stories are easily told in just a few lines or chapters that are nonetheless loaded with grief and meaning, and (often) faith, if we’re willing to seek it out.
The Secret Chord helps to make these fellow members of God’s people real to us; when we next return to the biblical story, we find that Brooks has dispensed with our need for the reminders of whose cousins or wives or allies everybody is, because they now seem to us like people we know.
There’s much in the novel that’s confronting – as there is, if we take it seriously, in the original. The extreme violence and apparent cheapness of life, for example; the many, many dead who serve as collateral damage on David’s journey to the kingship and the consolidation of his power. (“Whatever it takes. What was necessary,” is the novel’s uneasy refrain.) The frustration and powerlessness of the women’s lives as well, and the tenuous power they carve out for themselves, or try to.
But there are beauty and power, too, especially in the music that suffuses David’s life and soul and city – Israel’s psalmist as much as her warrior-king, and ours too. The story is told, appropriately enough, by the prophet Nathan (who really did record David’s life, according to 1 Chronicles 29:29), who is sometimes appalled at the king, but who also loves him, and is bound to him by the voice that speaks through him over the years.
There’s not much that’s appealing, really, about the God of The Secret Chord. Brooks, a Jewish convert, has written about faith in various guises in the past – not always in ways that other believers have been comfortable with. But these stories about the God of all people are, in a sense, the common heritage of all people, and it makes sense for those of us who believe them to be truth that many are drawn to them, whatever their faith. The Old Testament epic is a classic Hollywood staple; and rumour has it that an Apostle Paul movie (with Hugh Jackman in the starring role) is now in the works. Writers from Charles Dickens to Norman Mailer and Philip Pullman have all felt compelled to try their hand at retelling the Jesus story. The quality and faithfulness of these accounts tend to be variable, of course; but barring the truly outlandish or malign, there’s almost always something for Christians to celebrate or appreciate – at the very least as a conversation-starter.
Not only do such retellings help to sustain at least a passing familiarity with the contents of the Bible for a generation with fewer and fewer opportunities to encounter the stories that shaped their culture so decisively, but the force of story lies in its capacity for inviting engagement, waking appetite, lodging in the heart and perhaps changing the mind.
The messiness of David’s life (and ours, for that matter), set against the patterns of the narrative which are also the ordering of God’s good plans and promises, provokes a deeper, more intuitive, more life-giving response than a statement of doctrine on its own usually can. To the extent that Brooks’ novel better equips us to respond that way, even its jarring elements can be a blessing.
Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.