Monday, August 29, 2016

The Secret Chord

The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks

I have read a few of Brooks’ novels over the years and reviewed People of the Book in 2010.

Her newest offering, The Secret Chord, charts the life of King David, written from the perspective of Nathan the prophet.   As with her previous writings, she has done a lot of research and she acknowledges her main reference works in the afterword.   I started it expecting to read a usual historical fiction, but with some references to the biblical account thrown in.   However, it really is a retelling of the events of 1 Samuel through of the beginning of 1 Kings, some with almost word for word accuracy.

This is where I became a bit uncomfortable.  I struggle with the retelling of biblical accounts by Christian authors (eg Francine Rivers, see comments on this post).  I am wary of authors reading more into the accounts than we have evidence for.

Brooks is Jewish, so these are her scriptures as well.   Yet there was a modern interpretation to the story, most notably expressed in her depiction of the love between David and Jonathan as erotic.   A modern reader of those passages could easily make that conclusion, but most traditional scholarship never suggests it was anything other than a strong devout friendship between two men.   It’s a reminder that we read with our own cultural glasses on.

That was my biggest problem with the book.   I don’t mind an absolute fiction author doing whatever they want with their story, but if you are rewriting a true story, the interpretation requires care and brings responsibility.   In the end, I thought it was dangerous and potentially deceptive, which is the exact problem I have with any attempt at a biblical retelling.

However, the flip side was that I read the novel with my bible open next to it and compared the accounts as they happened in her book.  Doing this, some passages came alive through her retelling of them, and some of her interpretations were very helpful.  The charting of the years of David as a young boy through to old age to is well done and helps you picture the biblical events more clearly.  She has clearly done a lot of work to put this book together.  I should mention there are some unpleasant sex scenes as most of them are rape (eg. Absalom and Tamar).  She also makes the initial seduction of Bathsheba a rape, which considering the circumstances, it could have been. 

Somewhat confusingly for those who are used to the names as we have them in our bibles, she has used the transliteration from the Hebrew, so Shaul, Shmuel, Shlomo, Avigail, Yoav for Saul, Samuel, Solomon, Abigail, Joab (and so on).  It took a bit of getting used to.  I had to write them down to keep track and I thought I knew the story pretty well!   At least she explains it at the beginning with a list.

Would I recommend it?  Yes and no.  No, if you are going to use it as an authority on the life of David.   Read the bible for that, with some good commentaries if needed.  Yes, if you want to enjoy a book about a time of Israelite history which you might like to understand a little more, but read it with your bible open alongside it.    You’ll find that part of the bible more interesting too along the way!

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