Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Book Review: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

From Goodreads:
Brooks takes on one of literature’s richest and most enigmatic figures: a man who shimmers between history and legend. Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans
Geraldine Brooks writes a fictionalized account of David.  Do I need to say more here?  It is, obviously, beautiful.  It's hard to review the writing merits of a writer like Brooks - what can I possibly say to critique a Pulitzer Prize winner?  And the answer is, not much, because she doesn't leave much room for critiques.  It's just beautifully written.  The characters are so well done - "leap of the page" is a cliche, but that's what they do.  I found this so easy to picture in my mind and it brought a new element to my imagining of daily life in David's time as well as life in the court of David.

Entertainment Value
Despite how much I appreciate the quality of the writing, I was somewhat disappointed in how much I enjoyed the book.  I had imagined I wouldn't be able to put it down, but instead I found it something of a chore to read.  This is not necessarily, or even probably, a problem on Brooks' part as an author, but is more about how I come to the story.

David is one of my favorite Bible characters and one I can identify with.  He is depressed, he makes mistakes, he continues to mess up, and he continues to come back to God and have a passionate and personal relationship with him.  The story is so close to my heart.  I was looking forward to seeing him portrayed with all of his flaws and mistakes, but I felt like we got all of the flaws with none of the redemption.

It really bothered me how the David of this book has such a small interest in God.  He isn't passionate about God, just about himself.  All of his rough edges are shown and fully exploited (the David of this novel is a brutal rapist, not just an adulterer).  And while those things may be historically accurate (could Bathsheba have possibly consented when asked by her King for sex?), when taken out of the context of David's repentance and humility and devotion to God, it just makes him a monster.  Rather than an ambiguous character, he becomes a villain.

I struggled (and honestly still find myself struggling) with my feelings about this, as there are times in the David story when he is a villain.  But one of the reasons I find his story so personally touching is because of his redemptive relationship with God.  And if you take that away, it makes the story very hard to read.

I didn't love it the way I thought it would, but man has it inspired a lot of thought.  I HIGHLY recommend this as a book club read - I think, particularly among those who are invested in the story already, that it would make for a great discussion.  I'd love to discuss it with any other readers who have read it.  While I wasn't a huge fan of the book and found it hard to read (and somewhat slow) at times, it has really made me think about both Brooks' David and the David of the Bible and why I care so much about his story.  This is not a safe or sanitized version of the story, so if you're not willing to see beloved characters do and say some nasty things, maybe skip it.  Sex and profanity and violence are frequent, but for me that brought the story to life in a way that I hadn't pictured it before.

Thanks to Viking for providing me with a copy of this gorgeous book (check out that cover!) to review.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished this one and loved it, warts and all. I was a bit surprised that God was such a distant presence in the book- almost an afterthought. But the brutality of it made it seem, in many ways, more realistic. At any rate, Brooks is giving us historical fiction, so I was just interested in the different presentation of the king.