The Secret Chord

Written by Geraldine Brooks
Review by Marina Maxwell

King David needs little introduction to those raised in the Judeo-Christian faiths (he’s also a prophet of Islam), but readers without any religious background may have an advantage in simply reading this as a novel set around 3,000 years ago. It is told through the eyes of the seer, Natan, who only survives because of his prophecy that foretells David’s great destiny. Natan continues to be David’s conscience throughout life.

Although we do glimpse David’s amiable side through his music, for the most part he’s an unpleasant individual; power-hungry, duplicitous, murderous and cruel. Natan displays more humanity and control but is not above creating visions to suit the circumstances. Aside from the machinations, there are so many characters moving throughout that it’s difficult to grasp the scale. The transliteration to Hebrew of names may be confusing for the uninitiated, also Mitzrayim for Egypt, the Philistines are Plishtim, etc. Even God is oblique, just “the Name”. This may add authenticity but can feel pretentious at times.

Many of the original Biblical accounts have been refashioned or described in graphic detail, perhaps to make them more controversial. Most of the women suffer appalling treatment. Not even the famed seduction of Batsheva (Bathsheba) is the usually accepted version, and there is another scene featuring David’s only daughter that is extremely distressing and heralds an explosion of final redemptive blood-spilling.

While there are passages full of the author’s usual insightful prose, sadly these are eclipsed by the novel’s more distasteful aspects. It will depend on the individual reader’s degree of sensitivity as to whether they will enjoy it, but even for Brooks fans it may prove too dense and gruelling to take.