When it comes to historical fiction I tend to stick to two particular periods willingly. These are the Victorian era and the Tudors, the latter which I actually read less than I would like because I am picky. Anything before then makes me nervous, bar the Greek and Roman times which I am well versed in (though less well read in) with my mother being a classicist. So, despite having loved Year of Wonders in my pre-blogging days, I was rather worried about reading Geraldine Brooks latest novel The Secret Chord with it being set in 1000BC, a period in history I know next to nothing about…
Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 302 pages, borrowed from the library
As The Secret Chord opens we are thrown into the world of Natan, prophet and scribe to King David, who has just been given the mission of going off to meet with the people who have journeyed with him or crossed his path in the lead to his rule. David, who we soon come to learn is quite vain, wants his life documented and as Natan only knows of it from a certain point (when David killed his father and was just about to dispatch Natan when he announces his first prophecy) he must go and find out other peoples truths and tales of the king. As he heads to find his rulers family and first wife, interestingly both distant and reticent, he starts to look back on his times with David, a king who seemed to rise from nowhere against all odds and conquer the land.
I have to say initially I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into The Secret Chord as the idea seemed a little forced/contrived (unless I missed something, this plot device also vanishes) and on page nine a line describing a murder as ‘It was as intimate as rape.’ made me quite cross, however I continued and was soon lost in the storytelling of the characters that Natan meets as well as Natan’s own stories, which of course are all Geraldine Brooks wonderful retellings. Natan of course being an intriguing character in himself as he, without control much to his frustration, can see some of the future coming before anyone else which often leads to the intriguing questions of what he should tell, what he should withhold and what he is missing?
For a seer, I was remarkably obtuse. I know this now; I did not know it then. Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your “conscience” walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths. I did not see this. I did not seen that proud and vital man who feared his manhood waning might take any reckless step to prove himself it wasn’t so. In the service of my gift, I had to forgo much that makes a man in full. I know now that this sacrifice has left me blind to certain things. I can see what others cannot see, but sometimes I miss what is apparent to the dumbest simpleton.
There was much that I admired about Brooks evocation of King David’s life and ruling. Firstly was her clear passion and enthusiasm to tell his tale, which is quite contagious. Through Natan she also creates a fully formed character, flaws and all. David is seen as a ‘great man’, he can often be a kind and impassioned king, he can also be an absolute bastard to both his enemies and those close to him. As Natan watches his relationship with Yonatan, King Shaul’s son and sibling of David’s first wife Mikhal, we see David at his most loving and vulnerable. This section may bring up some questions to historians or certain religious views but I found it fascinating and reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Yet by that very same stretch we see how cruel and heartless he can be with his relationship to Mikhal as the novel continues. Brooks doesn’t portray him as some amazing hero, he appears fully formed warts (well not quite) and all and I really liked this. Well apart from the rape and pillaging, this occasionally made me have to put the book down.
Throughout there is a dark, grittiness to Brooks’ writing which brings the atmosphere or the time fully to the fore. These were dark times, though some might say we are still in them now, as people fought for supremacy and power. David thinks nothing of being sent to collect 100 foreskins from the dead bodies of Shaul’s enemies (in fact he goes for double) to win Mikhal’s hand. As I mentioned, parts of the book may not be for some of the fainter of heart readers out there. When Brooks gets out on the battlefield with David and Natan, which happens quite a lot, things get pretty bloody and pretty gory. Here is a taste of one of the battle scenes from early on in the novel, see how you fair with it.
When I reached the ridge, the king was making an end of another fighter. He was up close, eye to eye. His sword had entered just above the man’s groin. He drew it upward, in a long, slow, arching slash. As he pulled the blade back – slick, dripping – long tubes of bowel came tumbling after. I could see the dying mans eyes, wide with horror, his hands griping his guts, trying to push them back into the gaping hole in his belly. The king’s own eyes were blank – all the warmth swallowed by the black stain of widening pupils. David reached out an arm and pushed the man hard in the chest. He fell backward off the narrow ledge and rolled down the slope, his entrails unfurling after him like a glossy ribband.
One scene in particular I found almost too difficult to read and did question it’s taste, once you have read the book you will know which I mean, which leads me to a few quibbles about the book before I mention it’s greatest strength. I have to admit on the odd occasion I did get a little lost. Brooks doesn’t like to show off all the research she has clearly done in writing this book which I admired. However there are moments where her knowledge means she assumes she knows something, and I knew nothing which meant I got lost and on occasion a character, generally a man, would suddenly give reference the history of why people were at war in an aside that felt slightly like a reference book, these were rare moments and minor issues because I ended up reading this book in almost a single sitting and that was because of the women’s voices and tales in the novel – which in a slightly circular way leads back to the scene I almost found too hard to read.
One of the things I like the most about historical fiction is that it can give voice, if done well, to those people who were less documented and in the case of the time of 1000BC it is generally the women. Not so in The Secret Chord where Brooks brings them fully to life and ready to tell us all. In particular the voices of Nizever; David’s forgotten mother, Mikhal; David’s first wife who goes through the ringer, the wonderful Avigail; David’s third wife and the brains behind his early rise, Maacah; his fourth wife and mother of his only daughter Tamar, and Batsheva; his eighth and final wife, who all have quite the tales to tell, giving her-story to the history which I thought was poignant, upsetting, moving and fascinating. They are what make this novel standout, the forgotten voices unleashed.
“It is important that you know, I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.”
Her observation was quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested. I paused, and looked up at her.
All in all I thought The Secret Chord was a compelling and escapist read. It introduced me to a time I know absolutely nothing about and held me there for the five and-a-bit hours it took me to greedily devour it, only stopping for the occasional cup of tea or breather from the Second Iron Age shenanigans. If you are a fan of historical fiction then I would imagine this might be just your fare and if you aren’t it is great place to dip a tentative toe and see how you get on.
So there are my thoughts on The Secret Chord, I would love to hear yours if you have read it. It has certainly reminded me of how much history there is still out there to learn about. It has also made me reflect on how much I loved Brooks’ Year of Wonders (which I took to my heart so much as it tells the tale of Eyam, the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and sacrificed itself, which happens to be mere miles from my hometown) and how I should check out more of her novels, any you would recommend in particular that I should read next?
*I read this as part of the Baileys Bearded Book Club as Eric of LonesomeReader and I try and read all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, more details here.