Geraldine Brooks is a master at bringing the past alive, imbuing history with living, breathing characters who allow us to understand the very difficult task of being human. Whether her novels concern ordinary people or kings, in Brooks' skillful hands the issues of the past echo our own deepest concerns: love and loss, drama and tragedy, chaos and brutality. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005), the author imagined the Civil War experiences of the father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. In People of the Book (2008), a rare-book expert restores the manuscript of a Haggadah that has miraculously survived a world of war. And in the wondrous Year of Wonders (2001), people are swept along in the tragedy of the plague in a 17th century village.
Her new novel, The Secret Chord, focuses on the most legendary warrior of all time: David, father of Shlomo (Solomon) and of a nation. (Brooks uses transliterated names from the Hebrew Bible.) The story is told by Natan (Nathan), a prophet who is both seer and adviser. He will become the person closest to David, even though their relationship begins in horrifying violence.
When Natan's father rejects David's plea for help and is murdered by a band of David's men, Natan, only 10, surprises himself and everyone else with his vision of this ragged, brilliant outlaw as a future king. It is the same vision David has, one that binds the two for life.
"It might seem strange, that a boy would so easily desert all that he knew to serve his father's killer," Natan says. "It seemed strange to me, too. But as I lay there, my grief raw and my mind addled, I was not confused about where I now belonged. I knew, in some deep place, even then at the very beginning of things, that the heart of a prophet is not his own to bestow."
Because this is a book in which war is a constant, most of the action is concerned with the brutality and complexities of battle. But The Secret Chord is also a study of loyalty and betrayal at its most basic level. Can you trust your husband, your brother, your son? David is a complicated character, and not one we especially like: He is a warrior with enormous flaws and an equally enormous ego. But can a king be anything other than a dreamer, and can the hero of that dream be anyone but himself?
Natan is the one who allows the reader entry into David's mind and heart. He's also the character to whom we grow most attached. He promises David "an empire and a line that would never fail throughout the generations." He is loyal, although the man he serves seems driven primarily by a desire for power.
The prophet also is interested in the tales told by David's wives, as are we, but there are times when we yearn to know these fascinating women more fully; each one deserves a book of her own. They must deal with David's manipulations and learn the art of it if they are to survive. Some of these women, such as his soul mate, Avigail (Abigail), truly love David. Others, such the bitter Mikhal (Michal), the ruined daughter of Shaul (Saul), and the legendary Bathsheba, mother of Shlomo, come to despise him.
The one true love in the novel, beautifully drawn in its complexity and sheer joy, is between David and Shaul's son Yonatan (Jonathan). It is this story that most fully humanizes the king, finally allowing us to see him as a man of great soul. Basing it on the relationship noted in the Bible, one that often has been debated by scholars, Brooks leaves little doubt that the bond between the two men is one built upon "a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule, strained the bonds between father and son, and defied the will of a king."
If there is a secret chord the Lord can hear, and if David the harpist and poet is favored to be king, then how does he become the man who unites a people? A king who becomes a legend must see himself as we do: a mystery, complex and fascinating, a man as much caught up in sin as he is in faith and in song.
Alice Hoffman's most recent novel is "The Marriage of Opposites."