Reflections on Geraldine Brook’s The Secret Chord
October 19, 2015, by Erika Jo Brown
This is the second of a two-part review of special events at Christ Church Cathedral, in partnership with Brazos Bookstore.
In his witty introduction to Geraldine Brooks’s reading, Benjamin Rybeck jokingly accused her of not actually writing her own books. More likely, she traveled back in time to chronicle the rich historical backdrops and singular adventures of her characters.
When she approached the stage, Brooks gamely replied: “I wish I were a time traveler then I could go to Scotland and meet a hunky guy in a kilt.” It was just the sort of improvisation that you attend readings for—to witness the spirited mind of your favorite author (and to hear it in her slight Australian accent).
Brooks started with a few words about reading at a church, mentioning that she was rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, one of her favorite books, which centers on the minister John Ames. She also noted that temple is the place where King David, the main character of her new book The Secret Chord finds “solace and peace.”
In researching the second Iron Age in Israel, Brooks endeavored to replicate aspects of life as it would have been lived—and experienced the origins of several Biblical idioms. She literally “separated the sheep from the goats” and learned how to “be a good shepherd.”
She studied archaeology and history, consulting experts in early Hebrew music and more, wondering: “What did they eat? How did they fight? What did they know about the outside world?”
Brooks’ investigations also set her in direct opposition to Henry James’s admonishment “that historical fiction is worthless because the old conscious is no longer available.” “It’s the feelings that shape us,” she concluded, “not the material things.”
Set 3000 years ago, predating Herodotus, the story of King David is marked as “the first human being whose life story is told in full from youth to old age.” No records are available, “just a stone inscription and some ruins.” Brooks asked herself a series of questions about this life. Is it history? Or fiction? Or myth? Ultimately, she said, “no nation would invent a character so flawed.”
The idea for the novel germinated ten years ago when her son, then nine years old, learned how to play the harp. Brooks began reflecting on the other boy-harpist, who’s become a cliché in our language. “You see David versus Goliath in sports, politics, reporting, and more.”
So, she endeavored to find “the arresting moments, not worn threadbare” in the story of this “warrior, poet, musician, and lover.” Plus, “the Bible tells us he was a writer himself. Through the psalms,” she notes, “we can hear his own voice.”
Brooks also remarked that the “women in the story are uncommonly-well drawn for women in the Bible.” Consider Lot’s unnamed wife (“Doris?”) Consider Noah’s unnamed wife (“Gladys?”) She added that she could more easily “think my way into the precarious lives of women,” due to her experience as a journalist in the Middle East.
These women were “differentiated as people” with different backgrounds and personalities. She especially liked the character of Michal, the second daughter of King Saul and a willing wife to David, culminating in “the first time in literature we see a sheet tied to the window” to let a lover escape.
In portraying David’s “devastating relationships with children,” she also reflected on “the two sons of Saddam Hussein, raping, torturing, ruining the lives of citizens.” Brooks wanted her book to “explore motivation, and not just an account of action.”
She admitted that her novels can’t really start until she hears “the voice of the narrator.” For that, she was interested in the prophet Nathan, who sounded not like the consigliere she was originally expecting, but rather more like “Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandolf…a huge moral voice…facing men faced by G-d.”
After a short reading, Brooks opened the floor to questions from the audience, including one from your intrepid reporter. I had wondered how this new book compared with her earlier historical fiction, which ranges from early American eras to seventeenth century Europe.
In writing The Secret Chord, it was most challenging to find “insight into the character,” since there weren’t any documents “written in real time” (unlike the meticulous notes from the Inquisition as featured in People of the Book).
Brooks had to find “a new, unadorned style.” She then compared Biblical Hebrew to an ionic column, spare, austere, which forced her to “divorce from her beloved King James Bible,” with its stylized text. “My rabbi was helpful,” she said modestly. “She’d go through the text and get rid of my flowery language” in her quest to find a more modern approach.
Finally, Brooks was inspired by the challenge of portraying someone who is “both a saint and an evil person, a murderer yet scripture tells us he’s a man after G-d’s own heart.” It was comforting, she realized, that “someone who has so many flaws can still be beloved in G-d’s eyes.” And with The Secret Chord, we have an elegant and well-researched new way to meet this luminous figure.